CAMDEN, NJ — A proposed micro-grid in the waterfront south part of Camden — which activists are fighting due to the Covanta incinerator it would be attached to — made some headway during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. 

Except for Councilwoman Sheila Davis who was not present, the council unanimously passed the second reading of an ordinance to adopt a proposed Micro-Grid Rehabilitation Plan and the first reading of an ordinance to appoint the Camden County Improvement Authority (CCIA) as the redevelopment entity for the project.

Council similarly passed a resolution to approve the Planning Board’s resolution to approve the proposed micro-grid plan (while taking into account certain conditions). 

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Kevin Sheehan, an attorney with the law firm Parker McCay on behalf of the CCIA, contended that the passing of the bylaws simply sets up the zoning for the prospective micro-grid and adopts a rehabilitation plan — which is necessary to access Board of Public Utilities (BPU) funds.

Chris Orlando, executive director of the CCIA, said the county is carrying out a full environmental study and feasibility for the micro-grid “before a shovel hits the ground.” 

The micro-grid has been a hotbed issue ever since it was walked on the City Council agenda in May. If installed, it would provide a backup for the city’s main grid — especially useful during inclement weather like the recent Tropical Storm Isaias which left many without power.

The proposed plan would require utility connections from Covanta to Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) plant.

“The micro-grid will be a mechanism that delivers tangible benefits to the community, and we have proactively started discussions on what a community benefit agreement will look like,” James Regan, a spokesman for Covanta, said in a statement Friday. 

If passed, Covanta would convert waste to energy specifically for the grid to generate said backup energy, and the incinerator would in addition no longer depend on water from the local aquifer system — instead relying on the CCMUA. 

Environmental activists oppose incinerator

Activists in the city and surrounding area say the Covanta plant continues to release toxins harmful to the environment — hoping local officials seek other means to power the micro-grid such as solar energy. 

“The city has a sustainability ordinance that some members of City Council voted on and passed,” resident Benjamin Saracco said during the meeting. “The sustainability ordinance was designed for projects exactly like this…[requiring] health impact studies to be conducted before it goes to the planning board, before it goes to the zoning board. So that when it comes back to City Council, all that information is already done.”

Saracco his neighbors, other community leaders and members of the local and state NAACP currently run a group that has met weekly to discuss the proposal.

The city’s Planning Board met earlier this week to discuss the project and said a number of conditions would have to be met for it to move forward, including an environmental impacts study, a community benefits agreement and the full accounting of public comments expressed during the July Planning Board hearing. 

Cheryl Heatwole Shenk, a longtime advocate, spoke during the meeting on behalf of waterfront south residents with support from The Heart of Camden and Center for Environmental Transformation. 

“We believe that the micro-grid project has the potential to be a huge win for south Camden and the city,” Shenk said during the meeting. “But we are concerned that that is not the direction that it is headed and [that during] the county's proposal to the State Board of Public Utilities for phase two funding, they have dramatically changed the focus of the micro-grid to be a power sharing arrangement among a few private industries at a huge cost of the lost opportunity for public and government benefit.”

A host of other questions presented to the county continue to linger, including whether the project would lengthen the life of Covanta. An application entitled “Phase II Design” was submitted by the county at the end of May. The document, which was acquired by activists via OPRA request, states, “the reinvestment in Covanta’s class II facility preserves and extends the plant’s useful life along with all associated negative carbon benefits relative to the municipal waste methane emitting landfill alternative.”

Shenk completed her public comment by asking if the county would commit to forming working groups with representatives in specifically project-impacted neighborhoods. Orlando said it is something he and the county will take into account, but reiterated that the feasibility is still needed to draw a more precise picture over what the project will look like. 

CCMUA in need of reliable power

Scott Schreiber, current executive director of the CCMUA, said the plant occasionally has power issues. On June 3, he said, after losing power the CCMUA was unable to pump sewage for over six hours - causing overflows in various municipalities including Camden City.

“As climate change comes and as storms strengthen and intensify, I'm afraid of that these types of issues could continue if the CCMUA has not provided a reliable source of power moving forward,” Schreiber said.

Conversely, former CCMUA executive director Andy Kricun - who served in Camden for over 30 years before handing over the reins in February - says while the micro-grid project in its first iteration was created to entirely benefit the public, “the current microgrid proposal is that it is now a commercial transaction between private entities that does not, at least at present, involve public benefit.”

Initially he said, the project was designed not to raise sewer rates - simultaneously providing low electricity costs for the community and conditioned Covanta to install a baghouse to reduce air emissions.  

“It is my hope that the City of Camden will be able to negotiate some public benefit from the current proposal, such as the installation and operation of the baghouse at the Covanta incinerator, community benefits for the host community of Waterfront South, and some reduction in electricity costs for public housing and/or public schools,” Kricun said. 

Regan added that, “regardless of whether the microgrid project moves forward or not, Camden County’s need for a reliable and sustainable disposal outlet for waste that remains after recycling remains unchanged."

Throughout the meeting, Council President Curtis Jenkins and Councilwoman Shaneka Boucher, who has spearheaded efforts to inform the community on the project, said outreach throughout the city continues to be among her priorities. 

“There is no price that you can put on the health of the residents of this city,” Jenkins said.

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