Community groups in New Jersey and California are suing the EPA to force trash incinerators across the country — many of which are in predominantly minority communities — to emit less pollution into the air.

On occasion, one of the incinerators covered by those standards emitted pink or purple mist into the air over Newark, New Jersey.

The groups are requesting that a court order the EPA to update its standards for large incinerators, claiming that the agency was supposed to do so at least ten years ago.

The Ironbound Community Corporation of Newark, New Jersey, the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice of Commerce, California, and the national Sierra Club are the plaintiffs in two separate lawsuits pursuing the same goal: a court order directing the EPA to act now to limit the amount of pollutants these incinerators can be allowed to emit.

“Eighty percent of these large incinerators are in environmental justice communities,” said Jonathan Smith, an attorney with the New York-based environmental group Earthjustice. “The EPA’s stated commitment to environmental justice has compelled it to finally update its emissions standards.”

“We’ve discovered a consistent pattern of these facilities, many of them old, being located in environmental justice communities,” said Ana Baptista, an environmental justice expert at The New School in New York and a member of the Ironbound board. “These lawsuits are critical in addressing that.”

Environmental justice refers to a movement that seeks to ensure that minority communities that are already disproportionately burdened by pollution sources are not subjected to additional ones, as well as to reduce existing sources.

The lawsuits were filed on Jan. 13 in federal district court in Washington, and on Dec. 21 in a Washington appeals court.

The lawsuits claim that the Clean Air Act was violated. According to one of the lawsuits, amendments to the law in 1990 obligated the EPA to set performance standards for large incinerators that burn 250 or more tons of trash per day, and then to update those standards every five years.

The most recent deadline for an update was in 2011, but the EPA has allegedly failed to act, according to the lawsuit.

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice is active in Los Angeles’ eastern and southeastern neighborhoods, as well as Long Beach, California. In addition to community programs, it opposes incinerators and claims to have played “an integral role” in the advocacy that resulted in the closure of an incinerator in Commerce, California in 2018.

The Ironbound Community Corporation is a large social service provider in a section of Newark, New Jersey named after the railroad tracks that run along three sides of the neighborhood. It aided in the postponement of a sewage utility’s plan to build a backup power plant in an area already plagued by pollution and poor air quality earlier this month.

Baptista grew up in that area, which he describes as frequently stinky and heavily industrialized.

In 2020, she was driving to her parents’ house when she noticed something strange coming from the smokestack of the Newark incinerator.

“I saw bright pink smoke coming out of it,” she said. “At first I was like, ‘Is this some kind of breast cancer awareness thing they were doing, some kind of sick joke?’”

According to Covanta, the facility’s operator, the tainted smoke was caused by the plant accidentally burning materials containing iodine from a Newark chemical company. In a report to New Jersey environmental regulators, the company stated that several instances of pinkish or purple mist occurred between 2018 and 2020 as a result of iodine-containing material, and that it has stopped accepting such material.

The EPA standards apply to four New Jersey trash incinerators in Newark, Camden, Rahway, and Westville in Gloucester County, according to Smith. In California, similar incinerators can be found in Long Beach and Crows Landing, near Modesto.

The companies that run the incinerators claim that they all meet current federal environmental standards. One of the lawsuits notes 2007 litigation in which it says the EPA agreed to review its incinerator standards, and a 2008 court order sending the matter back to EPA for a second look.

“Over 13 years have passed since the court’s remand with no action from EPA to review or update its standards,” the lawsuit read.