Why was the facility built?

The Essex County Resource Recovery Facility was opened in 1990 to serve Essex County with sustainable waste disposal. The facility was sited by Essex County and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) and originally operated by another company until Covanta acquired the facility in 2005. Today under operation by Covanta, the facility sustainably processes up to 985,500 tons of waste on an annual basis. To learn more, check out the full Facility Factsheet here.

 

What happens to the waste processed at the facility?

Waste delivered to Covanta Essex is combusted to create steam to generate electricity through a process called Waste-to-Energy (WTE). Covanta Essex uses waste to generate enough electricity to power roughly 46,000 homes annually and recycles enough metals to build roughly 21,000 cars. To learn more about WTE, go here.

 

Where does waste processed at the facility come from?

The facility primarily serves the solid waste disposal needs of Essex County, including Newark. The remaining processing capacity of the facility is used to provide a sustainable waste management alternative to landfills for communities in New York City, and the surrounding region.

 

What gets emitted from the stack?

Over 99.9% of the materials emitted from the stack are normal components of air, including nitrogen, oxygen, and water (H2O). See below for more details.

chart of stack emissions composition

The remaining 0.024% of what is emitted includes nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and particulate matter (PM), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) among several other substances. For these and other constituents, Covanta Essex performs well below federal and regional standards. To learn more about our environmental performance, as well as emissions from other sources within Essex County, check out the full Facility Fact Sheet here.

 

How do we know that the facility runs the same all year long?

A combination of continuous emissions monitoring and annual stack testing are important tools used to determine the facility’s compliance with the emission limits set forth in its operating permit, which is established in accordance with the Clean Air Act and state regulatory requirements.

The facility’s operating permit sets the limits on:

  • the amount of waste processed,
  • the emissions that are allowed, and
  • how the air pollution control system is operated.

The stack test sets additional limits on how we operate. Certain operating parameters, like waste throughput and air pollution control operation, become requirements until our next stack test.

In addition, there are monitors that operate continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 365 days a year to check that the combustion units are operating well, and the air pollution control systems are functioning properly. 

The continuous emissions monitoring equipment at the Newark Waste-to-Energy facility monitors for opacity (a measure of particulate matter) and gaseous compounds such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides. The facility’s operators also continuously measure the amount of steam produced, as well as ensure the consistent high temperature (approximately 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) required for full combustion is achieved by monitoring and maintaining proper oxygen and carbon monoxide levels.

The key to low emissions is good combustion.  If carbon monoxide goes up, oxygen levels drop, temperature drops, or steam levels drop - the control room operator knows to adjust fuel rates or the air being fed to the combustion. If the monitor shows alerts for sulfur compounds, nitrogen compounds, or opacity, the facility staff checks and adjusts the air pollution control systems.

On rare occasions the facility may have a period of noncompliance related to carbon monoxide (CO). This is usually due to a disruption in the combustion process, sometimes due to wet waste, and is corrected very quickly. Importantly, this serves as a warning signal for operators to make adjustments to ensure robust combustion.

Monitoring data is shared with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the facility’s air permit stipulates compliance periods of 6 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours, 4 hours and daily averages. Every year there are hundreds of thousands of compliance periods the facility must comply with. If levels go beyond certain limits for a specified duration, they must be reported to the DEP. We encourage anyone interested in the environmental performance of Covanta Essex to check out live continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS) data, available through the facility webpage.

 

How does the facility control emissions?

In recent years the Newark facility has been upgraded with several improvements to emissions controls, despite already operating well below emissions standards. Total investments of over $100 million have included installing a new Baghouse, as well as a Low-NOx system, two examples of meaningful investments made by Covanta toward dramatically reduce emissions despite achieving compliance with our permits. Stack emissions are tested annually, and are also monitored constantly using continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS). See below a comparison of recent environmental performance to federally regulated standards.

chart showing emissions well below federal standards

Investments made at Covanta Essex are part of our commitment to install more emission control technology at our facilities located in environmental justice (EJ) communities. This commitment is described in our most recent sustainability report.

 

Is WTE safe for the community?

Research has produced study after study indicating modern WTE facilities do not pose a significant health risk of any kind for those living in direct proximity. To minimize any environmental impact, Covanta operates the Newark facility up to 99% below its federally regulated standards for emissions. We transparently report on the facility’s emissions performance as part of our corporate sustainability reporting.

While further improvements in overall air quality need to be the goal, particularly in communities that have historically borne a disproportionate burden, it is important to note that air quality has been significantly improving in Newark, not getting worse. Overall, according to EPA data found using this tool, concentrations of major pollutants often linked to various health issues have been continuously reduced over time in Essex County. In 2019, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2)­, one of the major compounds included under ‘NOx emissions’, were on average slightly lower in Essex County than in nearby Bergen. As well, sulfur dioxide concentrations in Essex County were about half the overall state average as of 2019.

Concentrations of regulated criteria air pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone (O3) have been reduced up to 99% in Essex County over the last 20 years. Notably, the Covanta facility in Newark is actually a relatively small source of these and other pollutants, representing only 5% of total NOx emissions in Essex County as of 2019. See below for more on how our emissions compare to other sources in the county.

 

NOx sources in Essex County chartParticulate Matter sources chart - Essex County

 

Waste-to-energy facilities like Covanta Essex have drawn criticism focusing on a few specific pollutants, namely dioxins and mercury. For dioxins, the facility performs 99% better than permitted levels (or in other words, 99% below permitted levels). According to peer reviewed scientific research, all of the waste-to-energy facilities in the United States represent less than a tenth of one percent of total sources of dioxin. Dioxin emissions in the U.S. today are predominately from uncontrolled combustion, with fires at landfills representing the largest sources of dioxins.

According to a recently published study, WTE facilities are a minor source of mercury in the U.S. as well, representing just 0.8% of man‐made sources, roughly half that emitted from landfills. U.S. and global scales of comparison are relevant to mercury, as mercury is a global pollutant that can travel thousands of miles before it is deposited where it can enter the food chain. Globally, waste combustion represents just 0.7% of total human-caused mercury emissions.

 

What was the ‘Purple Plume’?

On several occasions in 2019 and 2020, purple-pink gas was emitted from the stack at Covanta Essex. This was caused by iodinated waste entering the boiler at the facility and being combusted. Independent review of the incidents revealed the concentration of iodine in the waste was roughly 95% less than the threshold beyond which the gas could be considered a potential respiratory irritant.

Covanta takes these occurrences extremely seriously and has worked diligently to identify the source of the purple plume in terms of waste entering the facility, as well as developing a procedure to minimize potential for future incidents. Complementary to these efforts has been a renewed effort to establish lines of communications with the community for facilitating timely distribution of information regarding ongoing events at the facility. Local community members are encouraged to sign up for the facility newsletter here, to stay up-to-date with ongoing happenings at the facility.

 

What about ash, is it toxic?

Years of testing ash from every Waste-to-Energy facility in the country, including Covanta Essex, has proven that ash is non-hazardous and safe for reuse. Ash generated from combusting waste is tested routinely for toxicity, using the US EPA’s toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP). In practice, WTE ash is shown to be more stable and resistant to leaching in a landfill, than normal municipal solid waste (MSW). Residual ash is routinely reused as daily cover at landfills across the country. It exhibits concrete-like properties causing it to harden once it is placed and compacted in a landfill. The ash can also be used in a variety of applications such as roadways and construction as European Union countries have done.

 

How does WTE reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

According to both the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Commission, the most sustainable option for waste management is to prevent waste from being generated, followed by reuse, recycling and then energy recovery in the form of WTE. As a result, WTE is today widely implemented by some of the most sustainable countries in the world. However, most of the waste generated in the US is still disposed of in landfills despite no state or other jurisdiction defining landfilling as preferred to WTE through any policy, regulation, or law. Landfills are unsustainable for several reasons, the most prominent being greenhouse gas emissions. Landfills emit methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that directly contributes to climate change. Eliminating one ton of methane emissions is equivalent to eliminating about 84 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. By diverting waste from landfills, WTE significantly reduces methane emissions. Learn more about the benefits of WTE here.

 

Won’t WTE take away from recycling?

Covanta fully supports policies to enact better waste reduction, reuse and recycling throughout Essex County. Covanta’s WTE facilities are fully compatible and in fact complementary to improved recycling. Many of our communities have a higher recycling rate than the national average — with some reaching over 50%. A growing part of our work is recovering more metals, both ferrous and non-ferrous, from the ash left over following combustion. Currently, Covanta Essex recycles enough metal every year to build nearly 21,000 cars.

 

How does the facility benefit the community?

Besides contributing to improved environmental security for future generations, the facility has created over 70 full-time jobs, 17 of which are held by local residents living within 5 miles of the facility. We also continuously provide economic stimulus to Newark through procurement of goods and services. The facility in Newark also contributes meaningfully via involvement with several local organizations and institutions. A notable example is St. Benedict's Prep, where Covanta has partnered with school faculty to create environmental science and sustainability curriculum for students. This is just one example of our work to provide social and economic benefit to the community, in addition to inherent environmental benefits provided by WTE. To read more of our work in the community and to see some of the organizations we work with in Newark, check out our Community Blog here.

 

Why is the facility in Newark? What is Covanta doing to promote environmental justice in Newark?

The Covanta Essex facility was sited by local government and previous owners decades ago. Facilities like this one were sited in current locations due to proximity to industrial centers, which typically translate to large waste generation points, accessibility for waste haulers, availability of water sources for operations, and proximity to a technical workforce.

These facts do not necessarily make the locations of these facilities just, which is why through partnerships with local leaders, Covanta established the Community Outreach and Environmental Justice Policy in 2011. The policy was ground-breaking in its efforts to create a pact with our neighbors in every community where we operate, that we recognize our duty and are accountable for operating safely and responsibly. The policy documented our acknowledgement that as a corporate citizen, we have a responsibility to the individuals who live alongside us, to address their concerns and create a dialogue of ongoing understanding and transparency. Check out the full policy to learn more about our larger commitment to support the environmental justice movement and learn more about our community outreach work here.

Through this policy, we have not only formally established our position on the importance of local communities in making decisions that impact their environment but are also thereby committed to reducing emissions from Covanta Essex. In recent times, we have been vehement supporters of the new environmental justice law in New Jersey, and reinvested $100 million to add a baghouse and other improvements to further reduce environmental impacts of the Newark facility. This commitment also requires transparency about our own operations, which is why we have worked to make our continuous emissions monitoring data for the Newark Waste-to-Energy facility available for anyone to view 24 hours a day, seven days a week at www.covanta.com/essex. This data is the same information monitored by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and required by the facility’s air permit to ensure its adherence to the Commonwealth’s stringent environmental regulations. It is also used by operators onsite at the facility to track emissions, anticipate potential issues and resolve them to ensure compliance.