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‘Secret’ Amazon Air Hub Talks at Newark Airport Spark Outcry

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman Kevin O’Toole looked to address critics Thursday over a possible Amazon Air Hub at Newark Airport as community concerns heighten over the project and what some elected officials are calling “secret negotiations” with the e-commerce behemoth.

O’Toole said in a press conference Thursday, the same day the Board of Commissioners held its regularly scheduled meeting and heard from a number of speakers on the matter, Amazon is subject to certain conditions being met if the project is ever to be approved.

The contentious project has been met with opposition since the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Board of Commissioners voted last August in favor of negotiating with Amazon to build a 250,000-square-foot Amazon Air Hub at Newark Airport as early as next year.

Opponents have criticized the board’s decision to add the agenda item last year in a move seen as some to be the last minute, thereby not allowing sufficient time to express community concerns related to pollution, traffic and labor.

“The reality is that the Port Authority, after a process, made an award and there’s certain conditions that go with that,” O’Toole said during the press conference. “We have sent a letter back to Amazon that unless conditions are met, that there will not be a partnership. We’re waiting to hear back from them. So, I assume we’re going to hear something soon from them. But if there’s not, within the four corners of what I think are really fair labor harmony and other considerations, then I suspect we won’t be going forward. But if they do, if they do meet what our requirements have been, and this is me speaking, then it will go forward.”

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O’Toole declined to elaborate further on the specific conditions set out for Amazon outside of labor and environmental considerations, which he said “are very important to us.”

The board heard from residents and others encouraging it to consider the impacts of the project on the environment and jobs for the area and to include the community in those discussions.

New Jersey residents raised at the meeting pollution and traffic concerns they said the hub could potentially bring.

The topic of labor, meanwhile, was in regard to the types of jobs the hub could generate.

“As you know, the warehouse distribution sector in New Jersey is booming,” Megan Chambers, co-manager of the Laundry Distribution and Food Service Union, told the board. “It’s more than booming. It’s putting serious burdens on community residents all across the state and causing a lot of stress and strain. And I’m sure that in your own communities, in most communities, folks have seen this. This dramatic expansion of warehouses in New Jersey has come along with low quality jobs, poor quality jobs, dangerous jobs, and this is well documented.”

Irene Tung, senior researcher with the non-profit National Employment Law Project, studied census data for a study released Thursday that found 124 percent turnover in counties where Amazon facilities had a major presence. That compares to a 72 percent turnover among warehouse workers in New Jersey counties where there are no Amazon facilities, according to Tung’s report.

A dozen elected officials echoed similar concerns in a letter sent to the board June 20, pressuring the Port Authority to slow talks with Amazon and address community concerns.

“Residents and workers should have a say in how corporations are allowed to come into our communities—to make sure they don’t pollute our air or cause excessive noise or traffic or make global warming worse,” the letter read. “We should have a say, so that we ensure local workers are hired, have a voice on the job and are paid living wages with good benefits. We call on you to stop the secret negotiations with Amazon and bring us into the discussion.”

The letter was signed by Rep. Donald Payne (D, N.J.), New Jersey Senator Joseph Cryan (D), Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D), Assemblywoman Angela Knight (D) and Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese among other local elected officials.

The letter follows one sent earlier this year by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage also pushing for community concerns to be heard and considered by the Port Authority.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the letter or whether it is engaged in conversations with local groups on its proposed hub.