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Bad deal for local environment?

Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan is among the environmentists opposed to NJ Transit power station.
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Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan is among the environmentists opposed to NJ Transit power station.

It’s been more than two decades since Hudson County committed itself to clearing up the Kopper’s Koke site in Kearny. The property is owned by the Hudson County Improvement Authority, which has been seeking to develop the site.

Now NJ Transit plans to build a natural gas-fired power plant as a backup power source for NJ Transit Trains on a portion of the 130 acre Kopper’s Koke peninsula on the Hackensack River, a property once considered one of the most toxic in the state. The plan also calls for construction of a high-tech warehouse.

But environmentalists are asking Gov. Phil Murphy to derail the project, saying that it would create pollution and runs counter to Murphy’s proposal to have the state embrace alternative power sources such as wind and solar generated power.

County Executive Tom DeGise said the county spent $10 million cleaning up that site for future development.

While the site cannot be used for residential development nor even as open space such as a park or ball field, warehousing and other industrial use could make it into a productive site again after decades of non-use.

But in a protest held at Leonard Gordon Park in Jersey City, which overlooks the Hackensack River Valley, a group of about two dozen environmentalist and their supporters unveiled a letter to Murphy asking for his intervention.

They pointed out that this project flies in the face of Murphy’s environmental projections for the state to shift to environmentally friendly power sources.

The protesters

The New Jersey Sierra Club (NJSC) is one of scores of environmental groups that oppose adding a fossil fuel-generated power plant.

Jeff Tittel, director of the NJSC, said Hudson County has some of the worst air quality in the nation and that the new plant would only make it worse. His group has also come out against another power plant proposed in North Bergen for the same reasons.

Tittel and other activists say the site should be using wind or solar power and backed up with batteries. But county officials say the site is too small to accommodate facilities such as wind turbines or solar panels, which would require thousands of acres to generate the same power this plant would.

The 140-megawatt facility in Kearny is one of the cornerstones of the agency’s NJ TransitGrid Project, a federally-funded initiative to improve the reliability and resilience of mass transportation during weather events.

DeGise said the site is miles away the nearest residential property and believes it would have no impact on quality of life.

Jan Barry, a national environmental activist, said the facility would use gas produced by fracking, which would have a negative environmental impact on other parts of the country.

“I’ve seen the impact first hand, people’s wells being polluted by fracking,” he said.

The letter issued to the governor and signed by representatives of several dozen environmental groups said the project would reverse several decades of environmental progress.

Tittel was particularly worried that the weight of the power plant could break the environmental seal and release the dangerous toxins into the water and air.

The environmentalist are asking Murphy to step in and cancel NJ Transit’s plan, saying that a gas generated power plant – even one that meets today’s strict environmental air quality standards – is the wrong thing to do.

“Gov. Murphy talked about a resilient approach to providing power,” Tittel said. “This is the opposite of resiliency. This is NJ Transit siding with the fossil fuel industry. This has to be stopped by the governor. You can’t fix NJ Transit’s problems with dirty fuel.”

Progress for NJ Transit?

NJ Transit wants the natural gas-fired power plant in Kearny to help support its microgrid system designed to power important rail lines during weather emergencies and power outages.

The power plant would electrify the tracks and operating controls on NJ Transit’s Hudson Bergen Light Rail system, as well as portions of the Morris & Essex line and Northeast Corridor.

While NJ Transit admitted at several presentations that the plant would produced carbon dioxide, the project would support a public transportation network that would ultimately reduce the carbon impact on the environment by taking cars off local roads.

While the project is still going through the public comment period as a step towards approval, NJ Transit hopes start construction Kearny in 2021 and have it completed by 2025.

DeGise said development of the Kopper’s Koke site will generate hundreds of jobs, both during the construction phase and later as the warehouses are developed. The power plant is expected to create 250 construction jobs and 30 permanent jobs.

The polluted site has long been on the HCIA table for redevelopment, but significant problems such as lack of road access and other issues have kept the site from being restored for use.

History of the site

The Kopper’s Company used the site from 1917 to 1979 and it contains a former tar bit, a coal processing area. The worst pollution, however, was done by Standard Chlorine, said DeGise.

The HCIA acquired the site in the 1980s when then Gov. Tom Kean proposed that each county have its own incinerator for disposing of trash. When the idea was scrapped later, the county found itself holding a polluted site nobody wanted.

DeGise said his administration began working aggressively early in 2003 to clean up the property.

“When we took office, the Kopper’s site was inaccessible to the public by land and poorly accessible by water,” DeGise said. “We secured funds from the federal government to improve one of the two docks on the property and won a commitment from the state to create public road access to the property.”

NJ Transit was going to use the property as a staging area for the ARC Tunnel project – an precursor to the more contemporary Gateway Project – which would build another train tunnel under the Hudson River to New York. But the sale to NJ Transit went sour when Gov. Christopher Christie withdrew from the ARC Tunnel project.

“Kopper’s is becoming cleaner, more accessible, and eventually more marketable,” DeGise said.

DeGise said the proposed use for site benefits taxpayers by reducing the $2 million annual debt payment the county has to pay on the unused property.

He said the projects slated for that site will turn provide a benefit in jobs for the region, in both construction as well as warehouse jobs.

“It’s a wasteland that can be productive,” he said.

The 130 acre site will see infrastructure improvements, such as new roads.

“This is a positive use,” DeGise said. “We’re finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, and they want us to stop it? This is like canceling Christmas.”

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com

 

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