Covanta’s trash incinerator in the City of Camden, New Jersey is the largest air polluter in the city, and in all of Camden County, responsible for half of the industrial air pollution in the county. See the factsheet on Covanta Camden’s emissions for details, based on the latest data from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Covanta’s trash incinerator is the second worst in the nation for toxic lead emissions, and never had the modern air pollution controls for particulate matter (called a “baghouse”). Covanta has pitched the microgrid scheme as being necessary for them to have the money to install the long-missing baghouse filter system. They have also stated that this is a corporate priority for them and that they would install it regardless of whether they got the microgrid deal. We’re still waiting for them to even file an application with the state to actually do this. After getting a permit, it would take three years to install — one year for each of their three boilers. As of March 2021, Covanta’s incinerator is 30 years old. Most incinerators don’t make it to their 40th birthday, and the average age of the 48 incinerators that closed between 2000 and 2022 was just 24. It’s unlikely that Covanta (or their new owner, EQT) will really choose to invest in new equipment at a plant that could close before these controls have even been in service for long.
A study by a professor of environmental medicine at New York University has found that just one pollutant released from the Baltimore trash incinerator causes an estimated $55 million in annual harm to human health across several states (including New Jersey), mostly attributable to lives cut short. This pollutant is fine particulate matter, also known as “PM2.5” (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns). An April 2020 Harvard study found that very small increases in this PM2.5 pollution in the air are enough to cause a 15% increase in death from COVID-19. We also know that in New Jersey, as in Maryland, black residents are dying from COVID-19 at the highest rates. In NJ, it’s nearly double the rate of white residents.
While the Camden incinerator is less than half the size of Baltimore’s, the Camden incinerator has higher emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5): 46,174 lbs of PM2.5 in Baltimore when the study was done… compared to 51,320 lbs of those emissions in Camden in 2017. That, combined with the higher population in the Philadelphia area means that we can expect Covanta Camden is causing MORE than $55 million in annual health damage just from that one pollutant.
Pollution and Health
- Camden is the 3rd worst in the nation for industrial air pollution near public schools.
- The Covanta Camden trash incinerator is the largest industrial air polluter in Camden County, by far, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accounting for half of the county’s industrial air pollution, including 81% of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution and 89% of the lead pollution.
- Trash incineration is the most polluting way to manage waste or to make energy.
- Asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism.
- Asthma costs our nation $82 billion a year, including $3 billion in missed school and work days, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Asthma Capitals 2021 report, which also names our metropolitan area as the nation’s 7th worst asthma capital (down from 4th in 2019).
- One in three Camden students is diagnosed with asthma, nearly four times the state average.
- Camden residents are four times more likely than New Jersey residents as a whole to visit an emergency department or be hospitalized for asthma.
- Air polluted by nitrogen oxides (NOx) is well known for triggering asthma attacks.
Toxic Lead, Learning & Behavior
- Toxic lead pollution reduces a child’s ability to learn and contributes to anti-social behavior.
- Covanta Camden is the second largest air emitter of toxic lead in the entire trash incineration industry in the U.S.
- There is no safe dose of lead.
- The brain damage caused by lead exposure is permanent and irreversible.
Covanta has a long history of law-breaking, as evidenced by this 93-page compilation of their violations through 2006. Covanta didn’t take over running the Camden trash incinerator until 2013, so their violations aren’t reported until this more recent compliance history through June 2018. See page 6 for violations at the Camden plant.
Camden has a long history of activism against environmental racism, and was part of a major environmental justice legal case in the 1990s. Learn more about environmental justice and environmental racism. Trash incinerators are an environmental racism issue, as the largest incinerators disproportionately impact Black people the most. Around Covanta Camden, specifically, you can find the demographic data at various distances available in the EJ analysis at the top of the Covanta Camden page in our mapping project.
Covanta has much to say about how healthy and safe they are, despite clear evidence that they’re a major air polluter. They have “white papers” on health and emissions. See our responses to these PR pieces on health studies and their air emissions claims.