From major spills to small leaks, emergency response plans provide the public with a roadmap to safety. You wouldn’t board a plane without oxygen masks or a cruise ship without life jackets. But what happens when danger lurks and there are no emergency procedures in place? That’s the issue facing Newark’s Ironbound residents because the Newark Energy Center (NEC), a massive gas-powered energy plant, lacks a publicly available chemical response plan.
In 2010, a 620-megawatt power plant in Middletown, CT exploded with earthquake-like force. The tragedy killed at least five, injured dozens more, and caused considerable structural and economic damage. The NEC, with a 655-megawatt generating capacity, could cause catastrophic damage to the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark in the event of a spill, leak, or explosion. Alarmingly, Newark’s residents have no plan on what to do if something goes wrong, but EELC is working to change that.
On August 24, 2015, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) granted NEC a permit to expand its operations. Now, up to seven truckloads of hazardous chemicals can be delivered to and stored on the site each month. That amounts to thousands of tons of toxic substances on the site each year. Shortly after the permit was issued last year, EELC filed an appeal to have it revoked, contending that the facility’s current response plan “contains incorrect chemical information, lacks provisions for disaster response and hazard mitigation, and has no emergency communication protocol…basically, everything a plan should have” says Aaron Kleinbaum, executive director of EELC. Furthermore, the plan is not available to the public.
A U.S. citizen’s right to information about harmful chemicals in his or her community is granted through the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. EPCRA, a federal law established in 1986, helps communities prepare for chemical disasters. It also requires the industry to disclose the storage, use, and release of hazardous materials to all levels of government (local, state, and federal). EPCRA helps Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) develop response plans for their communities. LEPCs must review plans once each year and share information about dangerous chemicals in their districts. But, in violation of that law, the chemicals at the NEC site have not been revealed to the local LEPC, and the NJDEP has not mandated an adequate and transparent public emergency response plan.
In September 2016, EELC filed the latest motions addressing the legal shortcomings of the NEC’s response plan. For the past year, EELC and its adversaries have engaged in a back-and-forth legal battle regarding the legality of NEC’s current plan. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court is currently reviewing information from all parties, and the case will be reviewed soon.