This article has been updated with comments from Covanta Essex.

NEWARK, NJ — The purple skies Newarkers have been seeing lately aren’t a result of pleasant evening sunsets, according to environmental justice and grassroots community groups raising a red flag on a garbage incinerator they allege is releasing illegal emissions. 

Covanta Essex, the company that has been at the center of controversy since 2019 for the pink smoke it has been known to give off, is drawing the ire of activists and residents once again as its colorful plumes resurfaced on April 7 amid COVID-19. 

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The incinerator, which burns 1 million tons of municipal waste a year, is operated by Covanta Energy and owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Neither could be reached for comment on Tuesday, when the Ironbound Community Corporation, Earthjustice and the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School sent a letter to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Environmental Protection. 

According to the groups, Covanta has violated the terms of its air permits hundreds of times and emitted at least 10 purple plumes in 2019, which could indicate the burning of iodine, which they allege poses a serious risk to public health and the environment. However, the DEP is still investigating the exact source of the smoke.

The letter points to a transcript in which the president and CEO of Covanta Holding Group discussed a major expansion into medical waste with investors.

“Helping to drive our profiled waste growth is regulated medical waste or RMW. In 2019, we grew net RMW revenue to our EfW plants by over 40%,” CEO Stephen Jones said in the transcript. “For 2020, we expect continued growth as we accelerate sales to newly permitted RMW capacity in our fleet. As I've said before, we're striving to become the clear leader in wholesale disposal for must-incinerate RMW in the U.S. as pricing for this type of waste is significantly higher than municipal solid waste.”

The groups believe the Newark facility was included among those discussed by Jones in the transcript, but Covanta's Media Relations Director James Regan said Wednesday Jones's comments weren't in relation to the company's Newark facility. Covanta owns more than 40 other waste-to-energy facilities around North America, Europe and China.

As for the presence of iodine in the waste Covanta incinerated on April 7, Regan said the company self-reported the purple plumes to ICC and the DEP immediately and was able to uncover and divert the source using cameras and load delivery systems. 

"It's not illegal to have iodine in the waste, iodine can come from a variety of sources. Things like commercial printers, food manufacturers, even some photography studios and other manufacturing. The assertion that we're processing medical waste is just flat wrong," Regan said. "There's a certain amount of dispersion that happens at the facility. Ground modeling and modeling has been done over these events, the smallest amount of iodine in waste will show a visible color when it's combusted." 

Regan added that Covanta sent a letter to the DEP on April 24 outlining the results of their investigation and subsequent action to divert the source of the purple smoke last week, and the DEP provided the ICC with a copy. Prevention of the delivery of future waste containing iodine is also part of the company's strategy going forward, he said. 

ICC, Earthjustice and the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law are asking to make all requests to waive regulatory and permitting requirements public. According to the letter, Covanta’s incinerator is responsible for more particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) than any other stationary source in Newark. 

“Covanta’s daily emissions of air pollution have dire consequences for Ironbound residents—consequences amplified by the COVID-19 crisis. New research shows a link between exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide air pollution and COVID-19 fatalities,” the letter reads. “This means that the Ironbound community — which historically has suffered more air pollution than other New Jersey communities — may face a greater risk of health harms and death from COVID-19 because of Covanta’s emissions and its repeated air permit violations. This is unacceptable.”

Regan said that this assertion is inflammatory and does not put into context the overall airshed emissions in the Newark community. He said the facility puts out about 7% of Essex County's overall emissions and is a more sustainable alternative to landfills. 

"We're proud of the improvements we're made at that facility, we've spent upwards of $75 million on new emissions control in the past few years and continue to reduce our impacts. We have regular meetings with the ICC, including just this past fall when we had an open house in the Ironbound where we talked with residents and heard their concerns. The author of that letter was there," he said. 

The ICC has been awaiting a revised plan from the DEP to resolve the issues between Covanta and the community since January, according to Maria Lopez-Nunez, deputy director of ICC. The groups would like a resolution that allows everyone to work together and safeguard the public. 

The reemergence of the plumes comes in light of Covanta's permit renewal process, for which ICC and its allies are hoping are for more stringent operations. Covanta is considered a tier 2 renewable energy operation, which allows the facility special federal tax credits

"For us, especially under the time of COVID, we're very aware of the fact that there is 24/7 air pollution in our neighborhood," Lopez-Nunez said. "We want the DEP to do everything possible to try to minimize that pollution on our community." 

The groups are giving the DEP and the OAG until June 1 to respond to their concerns before pursuing legal action.