Essex Generating Station is an abandoned power plant in Newark, New Jersey. The Esssex Generating Station opened in 1915. Built for the city based Public Service company, the structure popped up along conrail’s Passaic and Harsimus line. No architect is specifically credited for the building, but the gorgeous structure is almost certainly a work of the legendary Paul Phillipe Cret, who worked on many PSEG projects throughout the years.
Four low pressure Babcock & Wilcox coal fed stoker boilers belched out steam to power two General Electric turbines when the building first came online. The following year four more low pressure boilers were added. Four additional low pressure boilers and third turbine were added in 1919, and in 1924 eight more boilers and three new turbines brought the total to 20 boilers and 6 turbine units. The completed station was the largest in the state, stealing the title away from the Merrion Generating Station in Jersey City which was also designed by Cret.
Up until now the power generated by the plant was supplied directly to the consumer. That changed in 1925 when additional switching equipment was added, and the station became a “key feeder point” into the existing high powered grid. The purpose of switching equipment is to take the high voltage power being generated and convert it to a more suitable output for household use. Having all of the companies generating stations tied into the same grid allowed the company to more accurately determine the necessary output required by each plant, while also allowing uninterrupted service in the event of an equipment failure.
By 1933 oil burners had been added to several boilers at the facility. They previously operated by burning coal exclusively. Three years later a huge fire decimated the switch house, requiring a major reconstruction. The process would take years to complete. Eight low pressure boilers were removed in 1937, and were replaced by two high pressure units. The new equipment was the first at the facility built with the ability to burn oil in addition to coal. An advanced new turbine was installed as well, which used exhaust steam to power one of the older units. Its one of the earliest examples of a combined cycle system I’ve across in my years of power plant research. By 1940 the electrical switching network overhaul was finished, bringing the plant totally back on line.
In 1946 four more low pressure boilers and the original “Unit No.1” were retired. The following year a new 1000,00 kW turbine took its place. In addition another high pressure boiler was installed, which could burn coal, oil, Or natural gas. Additional switching equipment was added at this time, and would continue to be upgraded over the next four decades. Three years after the prior equipment upgrade all the remaining coal boilers were converted to operate on oil. By 1955 eight of them were out of service. In the early 1960s generating technology was changing. Large, hulking boiler based structures were being phased out in favor of sleek standalone gas turbines which operate like a jet engine as opposed to a steam engine. 1963 saw the construction of several of these self contained peaker turbines on the property outside the building. Eight years later they built 3 more, and another in 1972. The last of the low pressure boilers were taken offline a few years later, limiting the plant building to the three high pressure boilers and the exterior units.
The 1970’s brought a growing collective conscious towards environmental responsibility. In 1973 two separate EPA investigations were conducted with regards to the plant. The first was the result of roofers tossing empty buckets of roof tar into the river. The second was the result of a small self reported oil spill that was promptly addressed by the company. Unfortunately this was just the beginning. A letter from the Passaic Valley Sewer commission dated January 21st, 1976 goes into great detail about witnessing EGS employees committing blatant EPA violations on several occasions.
Oily discharge was supposed to be collected in a tanker and brought to a facility in Irvington to be dealt with. However PSEG employees were seen pumping water contaminated with kerosene from manholes onto roadways and in one case directly into a tributary of the Passaic River. While that practice seemed to have ceased after the repeated complaints, Pseg continued to let thousands of gallons of kerosene seep into the river from a the same broken underground pipe. Oil sheens were being reported and investigated, but a source could not be located. The leak eventually got so bad that it left a noticable trail right back to the station.
All the steam turbines inside the building were retired by 1978, after the new compact turbines elsewhere in the yard rendered the old units useless. By 1990 another new peaker unit added to the property, this time replacing #8 which was had been retired for a decade by that point. The following year The US Coast Guard penned a letter to the plant management stating that there was a noticeable sheen of oil across the Passaic River near the plant. An inspection revealed that the piece of shoreline owned by PSEG was heavily contaminated and a leaking kerosene pipeline was the cause of the sheening. The state police marine unit took on the investigation, eventually issuing a summons to PSEG. Likely in an attempt to remedy the kerosene leak, the massive turbine hall behind the switchhouse was demolished, leaving a bare patch of land three times the size of the remaining building.
The switch house continued to operate as it was heavily tied into the grid. It wouldnt be long before inspectors were back on the property asking to access the shoreline. In 1997 during the cleanup of the former Diamond Alkali site, a six mile section of the Passaic River was being studied by the EPA. It was revealed that the generating station property was a significant contributor to the pollution of the river. However, since light remediation efforts had already been taken, the agency declined to charge the company for fear it would interrupt the work being done.
The case was still being investigated in 2003 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contacted PSEG as a result of the findings. The letter listed all the other companies who contributed to the contamination and asks them all to become a “Cooperating Party” to the Lower Passaic River Project, which sought to help reverse the damage with the financial help of those responsible.
Many of the rooms still contain batteries and other generating equipment, as well as dusty, dilapidated office furniture and other detritus. Graffiti artists have tagged many of the avocado-green interior walls as well as the exterior brickwork near the roof. Though the defunct power facility itself is vacant, many of the surrounding structures in this industrial section of Newark remain active, so explorers planning to visit the site can expect a high likelihood that law enforcement will be in the area watching for intruders.