By Nyah Marshall
Howard University News Service
Over a hundred protestors, residents and environmental activists from Essex County gathered at the border of Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey, on March 26 to protest the agreement made to build an Amazon Air hub at Newark Liberty International Airport.
As protesters chanted “Amazon’s got to go,” held signs that read “Stop Amazon’s dirty deal,” and “No mas acuerdos secretos,” speakers highlighted the several reasons why residents in Newark, a city already subject to a concentrated amount of environmental pollution and hardships, are opposed to this deal with Amazon.
“We are here to sound the alarm,” said Yambeli Gomez, the lead workplace justice organizer at Make the Road New Jersey. “Amazon is a dangerous monopoly. During the pandemic Amazon has exploded in our communities, becoming the largest private employer in New Jersey and has significantly expanded its carbon footprint into our state.”
The agreement between Amazon and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was officially approved in August 2021. Under this 20-year lease, Amazon will spend $125 million to redevelop two buildings on the airport’s north side into a 250,000-square-foot air cargo campus.
In a statement given to a New Jersey justice organization, Ironbound Community Corp., an Amazon spokesperson stated: “As a company, we’re always looking to invest in communities and recruit talented people to join our team. While the lease at the Newark International Airport remains subject to final negotiation, I can say we’re proud of the investments we’ve made so far in New Jersey and look forward to continued engagement in the state.”
State officials welcome the facility, which is projected to open in 2023. “With this new partnership, Newark will continue to be a global leader in logistics,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement. “This new e-commerce hub will provide needed revenue to the Port Authority while also bringing new jobs to our state.”
Huntley Lawrence, authority director of aviation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said the deal is expected to employ roughly 1,000 people, primarily from communities surrounding the airport.
However, community members are concerned about the quality of jobs Amazon will offer.
“We already know from a lot of studies being done, specifically at other Amazon airport hubs around the country, there’s a high injury rate and high turnover rate,” Gomez said. “We want jobs in our communities, but we want decent jobs for our community members. … Our communities deserve better than that.”
Amazon warehouse workers in the U.S. suffered serious injuries at twice the rate of rival companies in 2021, according to a 2021 study done by the Strategic Organizing Center, a democratic labor union coalition.
Over 70 protesters from the surrounding cities impacted by the deal met Port Authority officials outside their Manhattan office on March 17 as they left their first in-person meeting since the pandemic forced them online. Residents from Essex County and surrounding areas reiterated their concerns about the Amazon air hub, citing the environmental issues the city already suffers from, which could be exacerbated by the increased cargo traffic the deal involves.
Josh Kellermann, the director of public policy at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, was among the protesters who demanded the deal be stopped and maintained that there was a lack of transparency from Amazon and Port Authority.
“Amazon needs to give us what we deserve,” Kellermann said. “They need to give us good jobs. They need to give us clean air. They need to give us safe streets and if they’re not going to give it to us, shut it down.”
Yvette Jordan, a chairperson of Newark Education Workers Caucus, the sole plaintiff on the Newark lead water crisis puts it simply: “The people don’t want it here. The community doesn’t want it here.”
Hedge Clippers, a national campaign involving leadership and contributions from labor unions, community groups and coalitions around the country, found that Amazon used a fast-tracked process that involved no discussion or input from community members to approve the deal.
The national campaign also outlines three ways in which the Amazon Air hub at Newark Liberty International Airport will hurt the neighboring communities. They find the air hub will:
- “Displace union workers while creating low-road, non-union jobs,”
- “Solidify Amazon’s monopolistic dominance on the East Coast while threatening local small businesses” and
- “Further burden a community already facing enormous environmental racism and serious health impacts.”
This environmental racism referenced can be spotlighted by taking a glance at Newark’s demographics, past environmental issues and the environmental conditions that the city and its surrounding areas are currently facing.
The neighborhoods closest to the Newark Airport are the cities of Elizabeth and Newark, which have primarily working-class Black and Latino people living there. According to the 2021 U.S. Census, Newark, one of the oldest cities in the nation, is 50% Black, while the neighboring city of Elizabeth is over 65% Latino. One out of every 3.5 residents in Newark live in poverty.
Those who visit Newark for the first time often remember the lingering smell that engulfs the city. Newark is home to the largest trash incinerator in the Northeast and the second largest port in the nation with 7,000 trucks making an estimated 10,000 trips daily. As a result, diesel pollution can be 150 times higher than the level considered safe to breathe, elevating cancer risks attributable to emissions from port activity, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
One aspect of these harsh environmental conditions is almost remediated, because of the work of organizations like the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who led a civil suit against the City of Newark and New Jersey state officials in 2018 to secure safe drinking water for Newark residents. Nationwide, about 10 million lead pipes remain underground, delivering water to people’s homes every day, but this is more apparent in older cites like Newark where some pipes were over 100 years old.
At one point, testing revealed that lead levels exceeded the federal standard of 15 parts per billion in the drinking water at 30 city schools. However, scientists and health professionals contend that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that has been linked to developmental delays in children and can damage the brain, red blood cells and kidneys. For months until pipes began to be replaced, water fountains were closed in schools and Newark officials were providing bottled water to over 15,000 homes that had lead-contaminated water.
At one point NEW Caucus chairperson Yvette Jordan’s water in her home was three times the federal action level, and reached approximately 45 parts per billion. She reacted like many other Newark residents at the time — shocked and scared.
“When my home was tested, I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ I had no idea there was lead in my water,” Jordan said.
“That was the reaction by so many people on my block. At first, when I told them, they said, ‘Oh, no, you’re wrong. Everyone, everything is fine.’ But slowly, as folks were realizing, ‘Oh, I have lead in my home, too,’ that was eye opening and scary.”
Now, less than three years after the work began, the lead pipe replacement project, initially projected to take up to 10 years, is nearly complete. Newark has even been praised by Vice President Kamala Harris as a “model city” for eliminating dangerous lead lines.
However, when major storms hit the city this past August, and as local first responders battled flooded, heavily polluted roads to rescue residents waist-deep in water and residents documented images of debris that floated towards the Lower Passaic River, it became increasingly evident to the outside world that Newark is disproportionately exposed to hazardous environmental conditions beyond its water crisis.
Ultimately it’s evident that this primarily Black, Latino, impoverished community, Amazon plans to open an air hub, is already disproportionately subject to harsh environmental conditions resulting from industrialization and a lack of environmental aid from the state. It is because of the work and activism of residents and environmental organizations like Make the Road New Jersey, Ironbound Community Corp. and Clean Water Action, that these issues are being brought to light.
Kim Gaddy, the national environmental justice director for Clean Water Action, is a Newark resident who opposes the Amazon deal.
“I am a fourth-generation Newarker, parent of three asthmatic children,” Gaddy began. “The Port of New York and New Jersey is my backyard; “25,000 trucks travel in and out of that Port, 4,500 stand on our local roads,” she said, citing evidence from the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance.
As Gaddy points out, it is apparent that the environmental conditions of the city are impairing the health of its citizens, especially children. The Newark School District, which is one of the oldest school districts in the nation, serves more than 35,000 students, making it the largest school district in New Jersey. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, school-age children in Newark are three times as likely to have asthma, which is double the state and national average, resulting in missed school days and high medical bills.
In fact, a 2020 study done by the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance confirms many of the concerns Newark residents are expressing about disproportionate exposure to harmful transportation sector emissions, supporting their opposition to the Amazon air hub.
The findings of the study show that emissions from non-road sources, such as trains and port operations, have the highest impact on air quality. These emissions include health-harming air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen oxides (NOx) black carbon (BC) and carbon dioxide (CO2).
The NJEA suggests that while electrification of trucks and buses could be one path to reduce emissions of health harming air pollutants, electrification of these vehicles must be accompanied by a focus on emissions reductions from electric generating units located within the same community to ensure a reduction in overall local air pollution burden.
Until residents see efforts to reduce the burden of environmental disparities in the community, they will continue to advocate for the protection of their environment and organize against what they describe as “dirty deals” like the Amazon air hub.
“We cannot stand anymore pollution in our community,” Gaddy said, “because our lives do matter.”
Nyah Marshall is a reporter for HUNewsService.com.