Dinner. Put the kids to bed. Join a virtual gathering about a gas-fired power plant proposed for 2 miles away from her home.
Such was Stephanie Cullins’ Tuesday night.
Three hours into the meeting attended by more than 160 people, the Edison mother spoke on the Woodbridge project.
She was the last of more than 40 speakers, all but two of whom opposed the proposal.
“We have seen multiple pediatricians and pulmonologists and they give me a disheartened smile every single time when we discuss the town that I live in,” said Cullins.
Cullins, who was raised in Woodbridge, noted that her 6- and 3-year-old daughters suffer respiratory issues she believes are connected to emissions from half a dozen existing power plants in the county. The town has had water quality issues in the past, and state figures show residents also face air quality problems. The American Lung Association gives Middlesex County, where Woodbridge is located, a grade of “F” for ground-level ozone pollution.
“I ask for you to take a second to look at this issue at the human level,” she said. “Tell me that the torment of what you’ve heard from multiple parents tonight doesn’t rattle you internally.”
Through tears and three-minute appeals, dozens spoke during the virtual meeting Tuesday on the proposed gas-fired power plant in the Keasbey section of the township.
If approved, the project would be Middlesex County’s seventh power plant.
Maryland-based electric power generation company Competitive Power Ventures held the meeting, required as part of a permit application with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to build a new 657-megawatt plant. The new plant would be located next to an existing 725-megawatt plant the company has operated in the township since 2016. The two facilities would be the second- and third-lowest-emitting facilities of their kind in the state, according to the company.
Asked about concerns shared the previous night, company spokesman Matthew Litchfield said in a statement Wednesday, “Analysis presented in the public information session showed that project will be fully compliant with NJDEP and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards and there would be no increased negative health impacts to the surrounding community.”
The New Jersey nonprofit Food & Water Watch said the plant would release nearly 2.3 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, as well as “hundreds of tons of toxic air” pollutants like carbon monoxide, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, sulfuric acid and lead. The figures are accurate, according to an application for the plant that Competitive Power Ventures provided.
Company officials reiterated during the meeting the plant would provide necessary electricity to the region at a crucial time and would sit on a brownfield site, which has been remediated over the years for known contaminants (it may require further remediation, officials said).
Scott Kjellberg, a company spokesman, said Tuesday that Competitive Power Ventures would not answer questions during the meeting. Instead, he said, representatives of the company would hear from the public as part of an open comment period that ends March 31, relay comments shared to state agencies and answer inquiries at a later date.
A spokesperson for the DEP said ahead of the meeting that the state will evaluate the environmental and public health impacts of the Title V permit application in line with a state administrative order, which seeks to follow “the spirit” of the state’s pending Environmental Justice Law.
“Ultimately, the NJDEP will review the analysis and make a determination,” Litchfield said.
“It’s tiring to hear the people living in overburdened communities having to advocate for clean air, something that is for everyone,” Stephanie Martinez said during the meeting.
At least 12 towns, nonprofits including the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, the Highland Park School District and the Somerset County Board of Commissioners have also come out against the plant. Woodbridge is not among the municipalities.
John McCormac, the township’s mayor, did not return requests for comment.
Residents continued to say Tuesday that the proposed Woodbridge facility would violate the state’s landmark Environmental Justice Law, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed in 2020. The law impacts more than 340 municipalities, including Woodbridge, and over 4.6 million people.
The law requires the DEP to consider how pollution from environmental permit renewals and new project proposals defined as a major source of air pollution under the federal Clean Air Act could impact already-burdened communities, such as Woodbridge.
The law does not apply to the Woodbridge project because initial air permit applications to move it forward were submitted before the bill was put forth, a DEP spokesperson previously said.
Murphy during a February press briefing said the milestone law was “on track” to be adopted this April.
But Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, noted Monday that under the rule-making process, the department has until June 6 of this year to adopt the Environmental Justice Law, based on when the department initially filed the rule last year.
Still, residents and some climate groups worry the new power plant may be approved without a deeper understanding of its potential impacts. Environmentalists also noted the current administrative order that the law must adhere to, and which required Tuesday’s meeting to take place, is not as effective as outlining a comprehensive study of the project.
Several speakers additionally complained Tuesday of not enough outreach to get the word out about the plant and the meeting. More than one person pointed to the meeting being held only virtually, which they called a barrier for some residents to attend.
Competitive Power Ventures said the meeting was held in an online forum due to COVID-19 concerns, despite the state’s public health emergency ending last March and many municipal bodies returning to in-person meetings.
Written comments about the Competitive Power Ventures proposal can be submitted via email until March 31 to Scott Kjellberg at email@example.com or by mail (details at cpv.com/2023/01/18/public-notice/). Information on any upcoming meetings has not been announced.