NEWARK, NJ — An industrial energy project proposed for Newark’s Ironbound that has been a subject of concern among local environmental advocates was discussed at length on Thursday during a virtual meeting hosted by city officials. 

The project calls for the construction of a biochar production facility off an existing site on the Lower Passaic River. The applicant, Aries Clean Energy, was slated to present its site plan during a Feb. 22 planning board meeting, however, the board adjourned the hearing after a written request from Deputy Mayor and Director of Economic and Housing Development Allison Ladd called for more community engagement and time for the environmental commission to review the project.

As part of initiating more public input, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka was joined by state officials Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, and assemblywomen Eliana Pintor Marin and Shanique Speight to discuss the proposed facility. 

“What we need to do better is make sure that we get together and begin to figure out what we want as a collective and what’s good for us as a city,” Baraka said during the meeting. “We don’t want anything that’s going to add to the footprint in our city that creates more pollution, that puts more matter in the air - that makes it more difficult for us to breathe, that puts our health at risk. We obviously don’t want that in the city… If that’s what this is, then we obviously would be opposed to that.” 

The applicant plans to construct a facility that will convert human waste into a product known as biochar. The facility would transform organic material into products by thermally heating biosolids from regional wastewater treatment facilities and volumetrically reduce them by approximately 95%. The plant is also proposed to use thermal energy systems to convert 470 tons of biosolids per day into 22 tons of biochar.

The wastewater is collected locally and treated at separate facilities, according to Chris Kidd, Aries’ director of business development. The human waste, or biosolids, separated out from the treated wastewater are then brought to the Newark plant and converted through gas combustion into biochar products, which the company said it plans to sell as a concrete base.

As a Newark resident, Ruiz had apprehensions towards the project, citing the Ironbound’s already depleted air quality and its effects on the community. 

“I don’t know about anyone else who lives in the city of Newark, but I see the statistics, continuously - asthma rates compelling our children, the transportation infrastructure that gets bled by all of the major highways in New Jersey, and many of them shifting through two major wards in the city - in the South and East ward,” she said. “What impacts one city, one ward, one street, one block, one neighborhood - impacts us all.”  

The project has been met with pushback from the public and officials regarding particular concerns such as potential smells, transportation to-and-from the site and exacerbating the area’s air quality. Aries claims that the site would do otherwise.

“The reality is that this project is a benefit to the region,” Elnardo Webster, the applicant’s attorney said. “This project actually reduces the amount of emissions that are going to be impacted by the folks in the Ironbound. It actually reduces truck traffic.”

With a truck depot currently sited at the facility’s proposed location, it houses approximately 100 trucks and generates nearly 400 trips a day to-and-from the site. Aries claims that their operations would reduce local hauling traffic on Doremus Avenue by approximately 110,000 trips per year and cut back on air pollution. 

“There will be a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions,” Aries’ Chemical Engineer Joel Thornton said. “I do not want to misrepresent that there is an emissions profile associated with the site, but overall, when you consider the landfilling of the material that currently occurs and the breakdown of that material generating a large amount of methane, there will be a net decrease of emissions in the area.” 

No odors would be emitted from the site’s manufacturing buildings as well, according to Aries. The applicant claims that buildings on site would be enclosed and kept under negative pressure, and biosolids would be delivered in closed, watertight container trucks to mitigate the threat of odors. 

Although Aries said the facility will bring various benefits to the area, Kim Gaddy, a Newark resident and environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action of New Jersey, said that the city has already experienced severe effects from pollution and worries that the site’s operations will incur additional repercussions. 

"We have suffered from disproportionate pollution in our communities. Our communities are dying from asthma, heart attacks and all kinds of kidney failures because of the cumulative impacts of pollution sources that we suffer from, unfairly," Gaddy said.

As the project comes before the city again in the coming weeks, Ironbound Community Corporation Deputy Director Maria Lopez-Nunez said the community advocates plan to contest it. 

“We are saying enough is enough,” Lopez-Nunez said.