AI Could Drive Fusion Breakthrough at Plasma Physics Lab
Researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab say that new artificial intelligence techniques could bring the dream of clean, limitless fusion energy closer to reality. In a new paper published in the journal Nature, scientists from Princeton University, which operates the lab, and Harvard University, say that “deep learning” AI could help overcome one of the problems that fusion reactors encounter: sudden disruptions that halt reactions and damage the reactors.
“This research opens a promising new chapter in the effort to bring unlimited energy to Earth,” said Steve Cowley, director of PPPL. “Artificial intelligence is exploding across the sciences and now it’s beginning to contribute to the worldwide quest for fusion power.”
The researchers developed an AI tool that forecasts disruptions using two massive databases created by the DIII-D National Fusion Facility operated by General Atomics in California and the Joint European Torus in Britain.
Researchers believe AI will help control as well as predict disruptions in the larger fusion reactors that are planned for the future.
“Artificial intelligence is the most intriguing area of scientific growth right now, and to marry it to fusion science is very exciting,” said Bill Tang, a principal research physicist at PPPL, coauthor of the paper, and astrophysics professor at Princeton University who supervises the AI project. “We’ve accelerated the ability to predict with high accuracy the most dangerous challenge to clean fusion energy.”
Unlike traditional computer programs, which follow a set of prewritten instructions, deep learning AI programs learn and change their behavior based on data they receive. The AI was trained using Princeton University’s Tiger cluster of GPUs (computer chips originally intended for computer graphics but used for high powered applications).
Researchers believe their AI is close to 95 percent accurate at predicting disruptions and only gives false alarms 3 percent of the time. The next step is to use deep learning to control disruptions before they form rather than just predicting them at the last minute.
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Princeton University, James Forrestal Campus, Box 451, Princeton 08543. 609-243-2000. Steve Cowley, director. www.pppl.gov.
OncoSec, 24 North Main Street, Pennington 08534. Daniel O’Connor, CEO. www.oncosec.com.
OncoSec, a Pennington-based company developing cancer immunotherapies, is partnering with Duke University School of Medicine to test OncoSec’s TAVOPLUS therapy in combination or sequence with a vaccine administered with OncoSec’s novel electropulse delivery system. The research will be led by Dr. Herbert Kim Lyerly, a professor at Duke.
“We are eager to expand our immunotherapy research in breast cancer through this collaboration with OncoSec. We have previously demonstrated, in a variety of breast cancer models, that local delivery of IL-12 stimulates an anti-breast cancer immune response with applicability beyond end-stage cancer. This delivery system has the potential to be a foundational therapeutic in the treatment of early-stage disease,” said Lyerly.
“The translational work with TAVOPLUS has been very encouraging and we are excited to explore the potential of OncoSec’s IL-12 plasmid delivery technology to enhance immune responses targeting HER2+ tumors and to elicit superior T-cell and B-cell responses to HER2 in a variety of preclinical breast cancer models.”
LionOBytes, an IT and software company, has been awarded Minority Business Enterprise certification by the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), New York and New Jersey affiliate. The NMSDC advances business opportunities for certified MBEs and connects them to other corporate members.
“This certification represents another milestone for LionOBytes and will provide us with more extensive vendor opportunities, particularly in acquiring government contracts, and position us as a preferred vendor for large corporations,” said founder and CEO Arun Upadhyay. “We are extremely proud to be joining the list of other distinguished minority-owned enterprises in the New York and New Jersey area and across the country.”
LionOBytes opened its Research Way headquarters in March.
Certara, 100 Overlook Center, Suite 101, Princeton 08540. 888-708-7444. Edmundo Muniz, chief executive officer. www.certara.com.
Certara, a pharmaceutical research consulting company, has appointed four executives in its Simcyp division. Simcyp is a computer modeling technology used to inform drug development.
Rob Aspbury joins Simcyp as COO; Frederic Yves Bois is the division’s new senior scientific advisor and head of mechanistic modeling; Will Redfern is now vice president of quantitative systems, toxicology, and safety; and Noriko Okudaira is now senior consultant/scientific advisor supporting Certara’s clients locally in Japan.
“I am delighted to welcome Rob, Frederic, Will, and Noriko to the Simcyp team. It is a testament to the major scientific and technological advances that Simcyp continues to make that we are able to attract staff of this caliber,” said Steve Toon, Simcyp president and managing director. “Focusing on safety and efficacy, the team will build on Simcyp’s position, delivering confidence in drug development, drug target selection, and drug label enrichment.”
Aspbury was previously vice president of Covance Strategic Solutions, Biosimilars. Bois was research director of the French National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks. For six years he also served in parallel as professor and chair of mathematical modeling for systems toxicology at UTC and INERIS.
Redfern previously worked for AstraZeneca R&D in Cambridge, Great Britain, where he was principal scientist for safety and mechanistic pharmacology. Okudaira most recently worked for Daiichi Sankyo, where she served as director of the clinical pharmacology department.
Philip C. Scozzari, 86, on April 15. He was the founder and CEO of Scozzari Builders in Ewing. His company constructed the Mercer County Courthouse and other local landmarks.
Mary P. Habres, 67, on April 12. She was a former human resources manager for the state of New Jersey who founded her own company, Encore Home Staging and Redesign, after retiring in 2007. She ran the business, along with Encore Perception Marketing, from 2009 through May, 2018.
Stuart Carothers, 95, on February 2. He was a former executive director of Recording for the Blind and founder of the Princeton Area Community Foundation. A memorial gathering is scheduled for Friday, May 31, at 2 p.m. at Princeton Cemetery followed by a reception at Mather-Hodge Funeral Home.
Patricia Rasche McPherson, 82, on March 16. She was director of Princeton Homemakers Services and also worked as a nurse at New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Hospital and Carrier Clinic.
For five years, environmentalists and government officials in Bucks County have grappled with a complex question: “Is a handful of jobs really worth a potential toxic waste catastrophe?”
This week, we might get their answer. The decision has important ramifications not just for Bucks County, but the many communities in Central and Southern New Jersey along the Delaware River.
Israel-based Elcon Recycling Services has plans to build a facility in Falls Township, Pennsylvania, that would store and treat 200,000 tons per year of hazardous and residual waste. This includes mercury, lead, cadmium, benzine, vinyl chloride, and 260 other chemicals. Elcon says the facility is safe and “eco-friendly” and has touted the 150 temporary construction jobs and 55 full-time jobs that would be created by the facility.
But nearby residents say the loss of jobs is a small price to pay to ensure the health and safety of the region. Many of them speak from experience and worry that the same towns that woke up covered with red dust from the Fairless Works steel mill in the mid-20th century would be in the path of pollution from Elcon’s stack. If built, the plant would be near the Delaware River, directly across from Hamilton Township and upwind from Bordentown City.
On Tuesday, April 30, the body that has the final say — the Falls Township Board of Supervisors — will meet regarding Elcon for the first time. In a press release, Falls Township says the Elcon matter “could be decided” during the special meeting, to be held at 7 p.m. in Keller Hall at Pennsbury High School West in Fairless Hills.
The meeting comes on the heels of a March 26 unanimous decision from the Falls Township planning commission to not recommend plans for the Elcon facility. The planning commission does not have legal authority, but the Falls supervisor board does factor its recommendations into decisions.
Then, in May, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) will announce its decision on a series of Phase II permit applications submitted by Elcon. If deemed technically complete, the process advances to a 45-day public comment period.
Both the Falls Township meeting and the PADEP decision are important moments in a process that has drawn out for five years. But neither necessarily marks the end.
If Elcon receives the approvals it seeks, it would build a 70,000-square-foot storage and treatment facility on a 33-acre plot of land on Dean Sievers Place. The plant would accept toxic waste from approximately 20 tanker trucks daily, carrying aqueous material from automotive shops, mining operations, and pharmaceutical and industrial manufacturing plants. Elcon says waste would come to Falls Township via truck only from 10 East Coast states.
Liquid waste would be stored in tanks on the property until ready for treatment. Elcon is unique in that it uses thermal oxidation, not incineration, to treat waste. The treatment process separates material into four parts: sludge, salt, distilled water, and volatile organic compound (VOC) vapors. The VOCs would go up the facility’s stack, where they would be treated and then released into the air. Elcon’s current proposal says it will operate the thermal oxidizer for 8,400 hours per year, meaning the facility would emit from its stack on average 23 hours per day, every day. Among the resulting pollutants are nitrogen oxides, which can combine with the ambient air to create smog. The company claims on its website that its emissions will not have an adverse impact on air quality “in Bucks County or surrounding areas in Pennsylvania.”
Sludge and salts are shipped off the property for final disposal. This is the purpose of the facility: to convert the liquid waste into a solid, which is lighter and cheaper to transport.
Critics have decried the plant’s location as much as its purpose. The facility would be built a mile from the Delaware River, and just 2,000 feet from Biles Creek, a tidally influenced tributary of the Delaware. The site also encompasses wetlands that are connected to the river. Water experts say a spill at the facility could easily wind up in the Delaware, polluting a water supply used by 15 million people.
In a 2015 letter, the Philadelphia Water Department, which takes 60 percent of the water for the City of Philadelphia from the Delaware River, wrote that the Elcon facility should be rejected “given the risk of multiple-day contamination of the tidal drinking water supply to millions of people located downstream.”
Elcon disputes such a risk exists but has agreed to a number of measures to ease concerns. They include installing a barrier wall and limiting construction to the 22 acres of its property not considered wetlands.
But the measures haven’t been enough to quiet criticism of the proposal.
Bordentown City deputy mayor John Brodowski has long opposed Elcon. “Of course any kind of construction jobs are good. And dealing with these chemicals has to happen; they are a byproduct of modern society. This facility could be a good way to do that,” he says. “But it shouldn’t be here. The risks far outweigh the reward. Fifty permanent jobs doesn’t seem to be worth the impact it could potentially have on millions of people.”
Concern is especially strong in New Jersey’s riverside communities, which would be affected by anything Elcon might do to the air or water. Tracking air pollution is extremely technical and complex, but the general rule is that pollution affects a 30-mile radius from the source, guided by the prevailing wind. In Pennsylvania, that wind goes west to east, meaning that New Jersey would suffer the bulk of the pollution effects from the Elcon facility.
This 30-mile radius would cover a large portion of the state, stretching beyond New Brunswick to the north, Howell to the east, and Cherry Hill to the south. But the greater effects would be felt closer to the facility, where the pollutants would be more concentrated. Within four miles of the proposed Elcon plant, there are nearly 40 schools just in New Jersey, including Lalor Elementary School in Hamilton about two miles away, and Wilson Elementary School in Hamilton and Clara Barton Elementary School in Bordentown City about three miles away.
In fact, there are more than 10,000 schoolchildren within the four-mile radius, according to a resolution passed by the supervisor board in Newtown Borough, Pennsylvania. Newtown is just one of many municipalities on both sides of the Delaware River, including Bordentown City and Bordentown Township, to have passed similar resolutions opposing the facility.
Air pollution could also have an effect on water quality, says Fred Stine, citizen action coordinator with Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit based in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Small pieces of solid waste, called particulate, go into the air with the gases expelled by the stack. The particulate matter eventually falls to ground level, where it can be inhaled by people or enter water sources like rivers and streams.
“Air pollution and hazardous waste accidents do not know New Jersey from Pennsylvania,” says Russell Zerbo, advocacy coordinator for Clean Air Council, an environmental nonprofit based in Philadelphia. “It doesn’t turn around at the state line.”
PADEP doesn’t factor in such information, though, when considering proposals like Elcon’s. Its rules require a strict focus on the facility and land itself as they relate to the permits Elcon seeks. PADEP doesn’t consider the potential danger of waste traveling to or from the facility, nor does it consider the existing pollution burden on the area of the application.
Elcon says concerns about the facility and PADEP’s limitations are unfounded.
“Elcon believes that its applications comply with all of the applicable regulations and that it has taken many steps to go beyond what is required by the regulations in an effort to address public concerns,” says Joel Bolstein, an environmental lawyer at Fox Rothschild, the Philadelphia law firm that represents Elcon. “Also, Elcon believes the facility is properly zoned, and it can fully comply with all applicable local ordinances.”
Elcon has taken plenty of steps to appease critics, including conducting voluntary pollution and spill modeling, agreeing to install monitoring systems in the facility’s stack, and even making plans to elevate the facility above the 100-year and 500-year floodplains. Elcon also says it will not take fracking, medical, or radioactive waste. The company agreed to install groundwater monitoring wells and an impermeable liner and shut-off valve in its stormwater basin. The facility itself will have zero wastewater discharges, according to PADEP.
During its attempts to build new facilities elsewhere in the world, Elcon took similar steps to win over local residents, with no luck.
Elcon says it has developed “the most eco-friendly way to treat hazardous liquid waste streams.” If its literature is accurate, that is true at least compared to alternatives, such as incineration and deep-well injection. The company says its emissions will be “99.9 percent free of contaminants,” “will not be a major source of nitrogen oxides,” and “will not have an adverse impact on air quality or ‘ozone days’ in Bucks County or surrounding areas in Pennsylvania.”
Some of those claims are misleading, though. An air dispersion model released by the company voluntarily in February, 2019, says Elcon will release carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter into the air. A plan approval document submitted to PADEP in October, 2018, also says Elcon wants permission to emit 10 tons per year of hydrochloric acid. When released as a gas, hydrochloric acid can mix with water in the atmosphere, resulting in acid rain. It can also appear in what is called a dry deposition, where acidic particles react with the atmosphere to form larger particles that can be harmful to human health, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The October, 2018, plan approval document also states Elcon’s intent to release 23.4 tons per year of nitrogen oxides, just under the EPA standard for a major polluter. Elcon contradicts its own claims in a footnote on the same page, saying it is seeking permission to emit nitrogen oxides at the EPA major polluter standard of 25 tons per year. Elsewhere in the 313-page document are dozens of pages of testing results from its facility in Israel written in Hebrew, without further explanation.
Elcon’s claims regarding air quality are perhaps the most alarming when considering its proposed nitrogen oxides emission and what it might do to the air quality in the area. Nitrogen oxides are a major contributor to the development of ground-level ozone. Also known as smog, ground-level ozone is a dangerous pollutant. According to the EPA, ground-level ozone can cause health issues including damaging airways and aggravating existing lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. The EPA says ground-level ozone continues to damage the lungs even when the symptoms have disappeared.
Even without Elcon, the Trenton region has some of the worst air quality in the country. According to the American Lung Association, Mercer County had 29 high ozone days in the last three years, the worst in New Jersey. This distinction takes on increased importance when considering that New Jersey as a state fails federal standards for air quality. Of the 15 New Jersey counties tracking ground level ozone, 11 did not meet American Lung Association standards, including Mercer County.
Bucks County, meanwhile, had 28 high ozone days in the last three years, tied for the worst in Pennsylvania. Neighboring Philadelphia County also had 28 high ozone days.
Burlington County does not track air quality. But, with Mercer County just to the north and Bucks County to its immediate west, Burlington County has some of the nation’s worst ground-level ozone levels around it. The region as a whole belongs to the Newark-NYC and Philadelphia-Camden regions, the 10th and 25th worst for ozone in the country.
Because of this Elcon has met resistance from residents in the area ever since it first submitted an application in 2014.
At the state level, Herb Conaway and Troy Singleton, who represented Bordentown in the Assembly, introduced a bill in 2016 opposing Elcon’s construction. Linda Greenstein, who represents Hamilton, submitted an identical bill to the Senate. Neither made it to the floor for a full vote.
Conaway tried again in October, 2018, this time with the backing of Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) and Anthony Verrelli (D-Mercer). Singleton, now a state senator, introduced the same bill in the senate. Both await votes in committee.
The freeholder boards in Burlington and Mercer counties have also adopted a resolution opposing the construction of Elcon’s facility.
These resolutions are about the extent of the action that can be taken in New Jersey.
“It’s really fortunate New Jersey residents have gotten involved with this,” says Zerbo of Clean Air Council. “Legally, people in New Jersey really don’t have much they can do in this process. You have to have this fight in the court of public opinion and apply as much pressure as possible.”
A facility of this type often attracts opposition from environmentalists and concerned residents. But the urgency around the Elcon proposal seems heightened because the perceived risks are so high. The battle over the Falls Township facility boils down to this: is the unknown company trustworthy enough to be allowed to test its method in the heart of the Interstate 95 corridor, along a river that provides drinking water for millions of Americans? Do the boards with approval power know enough about how the facility would operate to make an informed decision? And is there anything in the proposal that legally allows opponents to prevent Elcon from doing what it wants?
“Elcon boasts this is cutting-edge technology,” says Fred Stine of Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “But they have very little experience. They have one facility in Israel. The question out there is: How much due diligence is PADEP and Falls Township doing to see how that facility is operating in Israel? What they’re doing in Israel is a good indication of what they’ll be doing here.”
Deep in the deserts of southern Israel, among chemical plants and disposal sites, rests a small toxic waste treatment plant that is Elcon’s only location in the world. Founded in 2003, Elcon started treating toxic waste in 2004 at a now-shuttered facility in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. The plant was located within the city limits, about a quarter-mile from a residential area.
In Haifa Elcon regularly violated Israeli environmental regulations, according to a document in Elcon’s PADEP application. In April, 2012, alone the facility exceeded wastewater discharge limits for total organic carbon, chloride, potassium, sulfates, copper, and nickel. That same year it also exceeded levels of sulfide, nickel, and potentially toxic halogenated carbons multiple times. (Elcon has since developed a zero wastewater system, meaning that if it works as advertised, the Falls Township facility would not discharge effluent.)
Then, several years later, an Israeli government effort to clean up Haifa Bay forced Elcon and other polluters to close their facilities.
Elcon relocated to Ramat Hovav, the site of Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility. Inside Ramat Hovav Industrial Zone, there are more than a dozen chemical factories, including plants that produce bromine, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. The Israeli government developed the zone for industry it wanted far away from population centers.
But the government also resettled Bedouin tribes nearby, including one village less than a mile from Ramat Hovav Industrial Zone. A study conducted by the Israeli Ministry of Health in July, 2004 — long before Elcon relocated there — found higher rates of miscarriages, prenatal deaths, respiratory problems, and birth defects among Bedouin in the area, according to a report by Al-Jazeera. The report added that residents have noticed a prevalence of other health issues, including cancer, childhood asthma, eye infections, and infertility.
Now Elcon hopes to locate its second toxic waste facility here.
Not much is known about how Elcon’s process works and how it would scale to the larger facility proposed for Falls Township. Elcon has been in its new location in Israel for several years now, but the facility hasn’t come up to full operation yet, Stine says. It currently treats about 120,000 tons of aqueous industrial waste, just more than half the amount proposed for Falls Township.
Despite this, Elcon has focused for nearly a decade on expanding its reach. The search for a place amenable to a second Elcon location has spanned two continents.
From 2011 until 2015, Elcon targeted several towns in the northern Italian province of Lombardy, including Castellanza, 17 miles from the city center of Milan.
In Castellanza the project faced stiff opposition. Residents protested for more than two years, organizing marches with hundreds of people, jamming local squares. Elcon eventually backed down, pulling the proposal in 2014, according to Italian news outlet VareseNews.
In 2011, Elcon approached the municipal government in Lakewood, Ocean County, about building a plant there. During a meeting of the local council, Elcon representatives said Lakewood was attractive because it was “well situated along the pharmaceutical belt that runs essentially from Philadelphia up to New York,” according to official minutes from the meeting. Ultimately, Lakewood rejected Elcon.
So company officials turned their attention to a place they thought would be more agreeable: Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Elcon submitted a proposal in 2014 for 33 acres of a former steel mill along the Delaware River in Falls Township. The surrounding industrial park already included several landfills, incinerators, and manufacturing plants. Elcon seemed to fit in just fine there.
“One of the foolish things industry has said is if you use chemicals in your life, you have to accept this facility here,” Zerbo says. “This area has an immense waste burden. They have done nothing but literally dump on Falls Township since U.S. Steel closed.”
Falls Township owes much of its history to 3,800 acres of former farmland abutting the Delaware River.
It was there, in March, 1951, that United States Steel opened a mill. Dubbed the Fairless Works, the factory employed thousands of people and attracted scores of families to the surrounding area. Two new housing developments were built in Falls Township to satisfy the demand: one with 1,100 units called Fairless Hills and another with 4,000 homes named Levittown. The population of Falls Township increased ten-fold, from 3,000 to 30,000, during this time.
U.S. Steel stayed a major employer in the area for two decades. It began decreasing operations at Fairless Works in 1973, though, sending Falls Township searching for the next use for the land that was so vital to its growth and economy.
In 1970, further south along the river, a 46-acre landfill opened. It became a key moment for the future of riverside development in Falls Township. The landfill continued to expand, eventually reaching its current 566 acres.
Fairless Works remained opened in a decreased capacity until 2001, at which point U.S. Steel began cleaning up and subdividing the polluted property it left behind. Pennsylvania stepped in four years later, in 2005, to sweeten the pot by designating the complex a Keystone Opportunity Investment Zone (KOIZ). As a KOIZ the renamed Keystone Industrial Port Center would receive a substantial reduction in local and state taxes. In exchange, the KOIZ had to create a plan to attract development to the former U.S. Steel land.
Similar deals were struck across Pennsylvania as part of a larger umbrella program, the nearly identically named Keystone Opportunity Zone program. KOZ began in 1998 as a limited-run initiative to boost depressed areas. Initially experts hailed the program as the model for stimulating economic development.
But in June, 2009, the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee released a study that painted a different picture. The KOZ program had “overstated” job creation and capital investment figures, the study says. It concluded that “many KOZ participants and their associated KOZ projects provide little, if any, job creation or capital investment in return for the KOZ tax exemptions/abatement benefits they receive.”
The government still hailed the KOIZ in Falls Township as a success, though, on the strength of the complex’s mission to fill the brownfield with environmentally friendly projects. Green energy companies, like AE Polysilicon and Gamesa Energy, came to Falls Township. A large data center opened there. There was talk of turning some parcels into large solar farms. For the effort, the Keystone Industrial Port Complex (KIPC) won the 2010 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence.
In 2018 PADEP announced that the complex had entered into a Sustainability Partnership with EPA, a pledge to reduce waste, natural resource consumption, and energy use. PADEP lauded KIPC as a success, but by that point it hardly resembled the green industrial zone it set out to be.
Falls Township, in particular, sought to attract a wider range of industry to KIPC, having changed its zoning laws in 2008 to allow for hazardous waste and landfill operations on the site. There are more than 50 companies there now, including steel manufacturers, medical marijuana facilities, material suppliers, scrap metal yards, salt distributors, and chemical labs and warehouses. Nearby, there are three landfills, a contaminated soil incinerator, and a municipal waste incinerator. All are adjacent, but not all are included in KIPC.
Development isn’t finished at the site, either. Zerbo says Waste Management, which runs the landfills, wants to construct new gas flares in the area. Gas flares are a way for landfills to burn off waste gases created by the facility. Waste gases usually are a mixture of methane, carbon dioxide, and other substances.
And, of course, there’s the possibility of Elcon.
Across the Delaware River, the residents of Bordentown City wonder what the effect on them will be. When U.S. Steel was open, they would wake up to house covered with red dust, particulate from the plant. In recent years Bordentown City has been subject to strong, unpleasant odors coming from the landfills and industry in Falls Township. On the homepage of the Bordentown City website, alongside listings for community events, is an image of a fish and a dirty sock with “Reporting Offensive Odor” written above it. A link leads to a webpage with phone numbers residents can call to report bad smells, including the DEP in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The Bordentown City deputy mayor, Brodowski, knows the effect industry across the river has had on his constituents and worries what Elcon might bring. He has been a vocal presence at meetings about the Elcon project and has tried to rally people to fight against the proposal. There are many things about Elcon’s quest to come to Falls Township that don’t sit well with him, among them the existence of a “green” industrial park where a toxic waste treatment plant could be a viable tenant.
“Really, there should be some sort of accountability for that,” Brodowski says. “There was a bait-and-switch along the way.”
The KOIZ status for the Keystone Industrial Port Complex site expired December 31, 2018. Environmentalists like Zerbo expect Elcon to seek the tax incentives anyway, citing the fact that the applications for the facility were filed well before the KOIZ benefits lapsed.
But there’s a chance the KOIZ era is over in Falls Township. And to Brodowski, who has seen and heard stories about Bordentown City bearing the brunt of the industry along the Falls Township side of the river for decades, it’s a chance to change direction. “When you start digging into it, it’s a bigger problem than just one facility,” Brodowski says. “It may be a really good opportunity for the state and Falls Township to reevaluate what is happening in that complex because it has gone in the wrong direction.”
Those who have been fighting Elcon from the beginning see the next few weeks as the chance to gain ground in a battle against an unyielding opponent.
“There are glimmers of hope all over the place,” Brodowski says. “There are many bodies who could put a stop to it. It’s just frustrating how long it’s been going on, and it’s still happening.”
The Falls Township supervisors will hear the proposal for the first time during the much anticipated April 30 meeting. The board said in a press release it couldn’t take action on Elcon before the company submitted a formal land development plan.
Then, the PADEP review of Elcon’s Phase II applications ends in May, triggering the start of a 45-day period for public comment on the project.
“It’s going to be a short public comment period,” Zerbo says. “If you’re concerned about the prospect of having a toxic waste facility basically in the Delaware River, you need to be talking to your neighbors and your public officials now.”
But no matter what the government decides, it most likely won’t be the end of Elcon. The company’s Falls Township proposal has been denied by PADEP three times already, once in 2015 and twice in 2017.
Elcon and its critics are gearing up for a lengthy legal battle should Falls Township rule against the proposal. Brodowski says Elcon’s attorneys hinted as much on March 26 after the Falls Township planning commission voted to not recommend the project.
Delaware Riverkeeper Network has been soliciting donations to fight Elcon in preparation for this moment. A crowdfunding campaign by the nonprofit in early April gained $15,282.
Even going as far back as March, Stine had been recommending that municipalities share services and legal representation against Elcon. He noted that some municipal governments — particularly Bordentown City’s — have been more active than others in the fight. “Bordentown City can’t shoulder all the burden to benefit all these towns,” Stine says.
The likelihood that a legal battle might ensue is increased by the fact that PADEP can only deny the project on the specifics of Elcon’s application. It doesn’t consider the logistics involved of getting the waste to or from Elcon, or any scenarios outside normal operations, such as a spill or accident. PADEP can only look at what Elcon has provided to it.
Critics worry about this, particularly because Elcon has made a lot of promises it can easily break without penalty once it builds a facility. Elcon says it will accept waste from 10 states, but there’s nothing stopping it from widening its service area. It says it will ship waste to specialized landfills, but Elcon can save money by getting a waiver to reclassify the waste coming out of its facility as not hazardous and dispose of the treated waste in existing landfills nearby.
The company has repeatedly said it will not accept waste from fracking, but Brodowski says the proposed facility will have the capability to handle it, leaving Elcon’s word as the only barrier to entry into the fracking industry. Pennsylvania is one of the top states for fracking in the country, providing a large, local market should Elcon change its mind.
Even enforceable pollution limits are often a suggestion. Zerbo says the precedent is there, with facilities in KIPC already exceeding air pollution regulations and paying the fines as “the cost of doing business.”
There are also lots of details Elcon has yet to release or possibly even decide, such as where exactly it will be sending the waste or the routes the full tanker trucks will take to and from the facility. Elcon has agreed to map the approach route so that trucks will not pass by schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. But the promise only applies to the final stretch to the facility, once in Falls. Nothing has been revealed about the path trucks would take to get to that point, including which roads in New Jersey they would take to get into Pennsylvania.
Trucks carrying hazardous material take local roads every day, something that Brodowski and other Elcon opponents admit. But their concern is the concentration of trucks that will exist with a facility in the area. Elcon says it will receive approximately 20 truckloads of toxic waste every day and has the capabilities to process 17 of them daily. It has not disclosed how many trucks will leave the Falls facility with freshly treated waste each day.
And should there be a spill or accident, the plan to handle it is unclear. Stine says the company has proposed using the driver as the first line of defense. “If a guy is in an accident, he probably won’t be cleaning up spills,” Stine says.
Brodowski also worries about an accident during the transportation process, particularly because response could fall on local emergency services departments without the equipment or training to handle hazardous waste.
“They’re the first responders,” Brodowski says. “They’re on their own. There’s not going to be any assistance. I didn’t hear anything about special training or increased budget allocations or anything like that. It’s frustrating that it’s looked at in a vacuum, and not the impact it will have on all these compounding other factors.”
Despite the large number of missing details about the yet-to-be-built Falls Township facility, Elcon also already has plans to double its size to 140,000 square feet in a second phase of construction.
There are still plenty of questions remaining about Elcon and its quest to build a plant in Falls Township. But one thing is for sure: Elcon has once again met opposition as determined as it is. As history has shown, whether Elcon’s facility becomes reality largely depends on how many local residents decide they want to speak up against it.
“People have their opinions about environmentalists,” Brodowski says. “But the reality is if these things aren’t in place, there’s a direct impact on your health and your quality of life. This is a real thing that is happening right in our backyard.”
Chances are that the last thing you think about if you visit Scudder Plaza outside the home of the Woodrow Wilson School on Washington Road is the man for whom the school is named.
You might consider the plaza as a convenient and scenic shortcut across the east side of the campus, with its large but shallow — five or six inches deep — reflecting pool and its 23-foot high Freedom Fountain, an assemblage of jagged metal through which water bubbles mellifluously. Or you might view it as a comfortable place to sit and catch up on e-mail or just grab a moment of solitude. Benches line the edge of the plaza, and the steps leading to the pool can also serve as seating — if you kick off your shoes and let your feet get wet.
By my grading system, explained below, the plaza at the Woodrow Wilson School is the second most successful public gathering place in town, after Hinds Plaza, the space adjacent to the Princeton Public Library and Witherspoon Grill. On a sunny weekend afternoon you can find students working on their computers, couples lolling around, parents watching toddlers in the pool, seniors catching some sun and — on occasions when no one is chasing them away — a few teenaged skateboarders showing off their skills. I’ll bet not one of them is giving any thought to Woodrow Wilson and his legacy.
That may change in September, when a 39-foot tall sculpture — consisting of two slender vertical columns, one black, one white, one learning into the other — is installed. The sculpture will be located among the two rows of trees on the Washington Road side of the plaza (and probably require the elimination of two of those eight trees). Visitors to the plaza from the Washington Road side will either walk around the sculpture or walk through the space between the two vertical columns. Either way, some visitors will inevitably be made to think about Wilson and his legacy.
The sculpture was commissioned after a 2015 protest (including a student occupation of Nassau Hall) that brought to light Wilson’s history of racist and sexist beliefs and actions — a part of the former Princeton and United States president’s legacy that had been largely overlooked in favor of his call for “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” and his advocacy of the League of Nations. Calls were issued for the removal of Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs. But the university, also mindful that the Wilson School has a legacy of its own, proudly maintained by thousands of graduates over the years, wisely decided to retain the name but commission a work to address Wilson’s past, warts and all.
The sculptor, Walter Hood, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, appeared on campus a few weeks ago to describe his work and its message. I attended the event for two reasons: First to figure out how this artwork would address some century-old scars; and second to consider how the sculpture’s physical presence would affect the public’s appreciation of this popular public space.
Hood has created several historical installations that set the record straight with respect to previous injustices. His work includes a “cultural landscape” at the homestead of a free black woman who lived near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville from 1833 to 1863. When a parking lot was expanded near the site, several dozen gravesites were discovered. Hood’s work is both a memorial and a reminder.
At the Nashville Civil Rights Museum, Hood created walls of concrete, etched with photos of protesters, counter-protesters, and police. “I wanted people to be able to touch it. Through the light, texture, and space you are enmeshed in the civil rights movement,” he says.
In the Nauck section of Arlington, Virginia, a neighborhood largely founded by freed slaves, the historic identity was being overwhelmed by new development. Hood designed a town square in the middle of which is a 40-foot high sculpture that forms the word “freed.” Says Hood: “It starts a conversation.”
Conversations, he hopes, will be triggered by his work in Princeton. He calls it “Double Consciousness,” derived from the term in W.E.B. DuBois’s 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” From Hood’s point of view the title suggests that a black man such as himself has to “learn white and black. That constant back and forth also exists sometimes for people in poverty. You have to address it,” he says.
“Art can have multiple voices,” he says. “I don’t want to live in a world where everything is homogenous.” Hood’s sculpture at Scudder Plaza will provide some conversation starters, including quotations from Wilson and criticisms and condemnations from some of his detractors, as well as images of some of his critics, all etched into the interior surfaces of the sculpture through a lenticular printing process that creates the illusion of a three-dimensional image.
Let Wilson’s modern-day critics decide if Hood’s sculpture is enough to set the former president in proper historic context. Their thoughts are sure to be heard after the sculpture is completed in September.
But we can consider the sculpture’s impact on the public space. Will the 39-foot sculpture towering over the western end of the plaza draw people in and increase the number of voices in that conversation that Hood imagines? Or will it appear as a gate, telling visitors in effect that the university has some of its own business to address here?
Here are my grades for Scudder Plaza now (and I will use the same criteria to grade it after the sculpture has been installed).
Accessibility and a sense of place. Scudder Plaza gets high marks for its size and scale. It is an inviting place when viewed from either end. It is framed gracefully by Corwin Hall at the back of the plaza, the row of magnolia trees on one side and the geometric pillars of the Yamasaki-designed Robertson Hall housing the Wilson School on the other side — the “bicycle rack,” as it was known when it was built in 1965.
The Freedom Fountain is an inviting focal point located well beyond the mid-point of the plaza as viewed from Washington Road. There are various pathways leading into the plaza, as well as the main entrance along Washington Road. The question now is whether “Double Consciousness” will create a subconscious divide. My grade: A.
Amenities, especially seating. Scudder Plaza has lots of it, on the bench beneath the row of magnolias, and on benches interspersed among the trees at either end of the reflecting pool. The steps leading up to Robertson Hall can serve as seating, as can the steps leading into the reflecting pool. Scudder scores lower than Hinds because the latter has moveable chairs, as well as tables. My grade: B.
Activities. Thanks to the Freedom Fountain and the reflecting pool, Scudder Plaza gets a top grade in this category. At times the plaza has been home to too much activity. Skateboarders have been a problem recently, but little spacers have been installed in benches to discourage skateboards. On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon I counted more than 50 people in the plaza, from toddlers on baby scooters to older kids wading in the pool to students with computers and young couples with each other. There were only three skateboarders, and they were clearly inconvenienced by the other people.
At various times in the past the university attempted to prohibit people from wading in the pool — a futile effort. Now it appears to be open access, but it also appears that the water is much lower than it used to be — a good trade off. On a hot day, nevertheless, it is the only water game in town. My grade: A.
Food, entertainment, and social interaction. Scudder Plaza is flanked by three academic buildings: Robertson Hall, Corwin Hall and the Department of Politics, and the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building, home of the Bendheim Center for Finance. It’s good for people watching (not to be underestimated) but it is not party central. Compare it to Hinds Plaza, which is bordered by the bustling public library, the Witherspoon Grill with an outdoor dining area, and a line of retail shops — plenty of places to get food or drink and plenty of chances for conversations with strangers.
My grade: B, but with a comment. Chatting informally at the end of Hood’s public presentation, the sculptor (who has degrees in both architecture and landscape architecture) and I discuss the merits of successful public places. Hood agrees with my positive view of Scudder Plaza. “It has water, places to sit, and sun,” he says. “But no food,” I respond. Then I add, “possibly it will soon have some food for thought.”
Gustavo Dudamel, the classical music superstar conductor, has been a quiet presence in Trenton over the past few months.
But the volume will be turned up when the superstar conductor — affectionately known as “The Dude” — presents a free concert at the Trenton War Memorial on Saturday, April 27.
Dudamel comes to Trenton via Princeton University, where he is the first ever conductor in residence
While that is noteworthy in itself; Dudamel expanded his residency by insisting on his involvement with Trenton Public School music students and the Trenton Music Makers.
The latter partners with the Trenton School System and uses El Sistema tactics — something dear to the Venezuelan-born musician who traces his early music education to the program.
Now an international classical music star, Dudamel has a resume that includes leading several of the world’s greatest symphonic orchestras as well as a youth orchestra during the 2016 Super Bowl.
The residency commemorates the Princeton University Concerts’ 125th anniversary — a cultural achievement of its own.
El Sistema — “the system” in English — was founded in 1975 in Venezuela by the late Jose Antonio Abreu, an economist and educator.
Calling it “a social system that fights poverty,” Abreu had a vision of bringing students together to create both music and better community.
“Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values — solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion,” noted Abreu, who died in 2018. “And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.”
Believing “music produces an irreversible transformation in a child,” Abreu said the effects of participating in El Sistema go beyond the playing and that involvement doesn’t mean the participant will end up as a professional musician. He or she “may become a doctor or study law or teach literature. What music gives him or her remains indelibly part of who they are forever.”
The successful program that has students actively engaged in playing classical music eventually gained the support of all Venezuelan governments, regardless of political positions. By 2015 the program had become worldwide, encompassing 400 music centers and 700,000 young people.
Now 38, Dudamel, born six years after El Sistema was created, participated in the system and is one of its most prominent proponents.
“I studied music since I was four years old, and from that moment I became part of a family,” he said in a statement for an El Sistema event at Carnegie Hall. “And that family has taught me things; not only musical things, but things I have to face in life, and that is where the success of the system lies.”
In addition to his El Sistema activities, Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Venezuela’s Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar.
Reached by e-mail, Dudamel explains his decision to include Trenton in his Princeton visit. “For me,” he says, “art can never exist in a vacuum — music is about building bridges and making connections between cultures, generations, institutions, and social groups.”
Drawing on what he calls “music’s unique power to unite,” he is delighted by music’s appeal beyond the university. Particularly gratifying for him was El Sistema’s discovery of young people whose lives were affected every day by their new musical horizons.
In addition to his own devotion to music, Dudamel is constantly surprised by the lure of music for young people. “I feel the power of music,” he says, “but still it moves me whenever I see young people playing music with such love and dedication. Their working together to create beauty never fails to inspire me.”
Dudamel considers his visit to New Jersey a turning point. “It feels like we have taken a first step in bringing Princeton University and the grass-roots music programs of Trenton closer together. I look forward to helping develop a sustainable, mutually enriching bridge between these neighboring communities,” he says.
Carol Burden, executive director of Trenton Music Makers, established in 1998, is in concert with Dudamel’s ideas and reports on his recent involvement with Trenton students.
“When the kids went to play for him, they were nervous because they knew he was important,” Burden says. “After they played, he beamed ear-to- ear, and said, ‘Wonderful! Isn’t this fun? Play more!’ The kids played everything they had prepared, then they played old pieces. His message was ‘This is special, do more!’”
“What was delightful to us was Dudamel’s own delight in being there,” Burden adds.
The Trenton Music Makers is a free community-supported program that includes a preschool group and an orchestra involving 105 students from fourth grade to high school. Students are recruited within the Trenton Public School through site coordinators and principals or by providing information to parents at Back-to-School nights.
In addition to playing within the schools, the Trenton musicians also will perform with 300 other El Sistema players at Princeton University’s Alexander Hall on Sunday, April 28. More details below.
Musicologist Don Michael Randel evoked Dudamel’s capacity for delight during a public interview shortly after Dudamel’s arrival in Princeton. Randel, a Princeton alumnus, is, incidentally president emeritus of both the University of Chicago and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“I wanted to play trombone like my father,” Dudamel told Randel in the public event, “but my arm was too short. I studied solfege and harmony, and waited to get taller so I could play trombone.”
“As a child, I played toy instruments. I never thought I’d be a classical musician. Someone gave us a ukulele, and my father saw that I was keeping the rhythm. I tried trumpet, but didn’t like it because it was painful. I wanted a viola.”
The Venezuelan violinist and conductor is the son of a trombonist and a voice teacher who experienced the El Sistema music education program that started in Venezuela. He told Trenton students that he chose the violin because many of his friends played the violin.
He also recounted that a key moment in his career path was playing second violin at age 9 and feeling “blessed” that he was part of the larger sound of an orchestra. “Art takes us to another place that heals our souls,” he said. “Love what you do. Believe in yourself,” he told the students.
Regarding his start with El Sistema, Dudamel said. “I didn’t want to be taught anything. I wanted to explore and discover.” He considers that attitude desirable because it creates room to contemplate and understand.
Dudamel’s visit to Trenton was the result of his own desire to interact with urban student musicians, much like his own experience growing up under the El Sistema music education program in Venezuela, said Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts. “Working with youth is such a big part of his mission,” she says.
As a conductor, Dudamel had his first adventures without a teacher. “My toys were my first orchestras,” he said. “My first orchestras were Vienna and Chicago,” Dudamel said, talking about leading recordings of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” as a youngster.
“I conducted my first real orchestra from the violin section. The conductor was late. I moved my hand and we started to play.”
At age 17 he was appointed conductor of the Venezuelan youth orchestra. He was named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 2009-’10 season. This season marked his debut conducting the Metropolitan Opera.
The conductor, in Dudamel’s view, inspires and motivates players by gaining their respect. He has the power but must cultivate respect.
Additionally, he said, “Some conductors impose and are arrogant, rather than gaining respect. Instrumentalists tend to smell blood when conductors impose. Conducting different orchestras is like dancing with different partners; you cannot impose yourself — your partner may not be following your beat.”
“When a conductor really connects with musicians it’s a miracle. The music may have been composed 200 years ago, but it is always new. Conducting is the best thing in the world.”
Dudamel considers music a powerful instrument of social change. Indeed, he believes that changing the perception of classical music by school children can have a long-term effect on society. “In my school music was the last and least important class,” he says. To the contrary, he believes that if children are raised to understand music’s beauty and creativity, music can become a means of social change.
Dudamel is an enemy of the widespread idea that music can be boring. “When I think of exposing young people to music, I don’t believe in boredom,” he said. “I love Latin music. I like classics. I like Pink Floyd. I like the Beatles. I don’t believe in tradition and putting music in a box. We have to destroy that box.”
His Trenton appearance may be just another removal of those bricks in the wall separating a new generation and classical music.
Gustavo Dudamel in conversation with Fintan O’Toole, “The Artist in Society,” Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Thursday, April 25, 8 p.m. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609-258-2800.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Princeton University Orchestra and Princeton University Glee Club, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Friday, April 26, 7:30 p.m. $15 to $45. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609 258-2800.
Program repeats at Patriots Theater, Trenton War Memorial, 1 War Memorial Drive. Saturday, April 27, 4 p.m. Free ticket required; sold out. 609-984-8484.
El Sistema Festival Performance, 300 players and singers hosted by Trenton Music Makers during Communiversity. Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, April 28, 3 p.m. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609 258-2800.
It sounds like the plot to a movie, but it’s a true story.
Sarah “Essie” Riddle has two personas: an opera and classical singer, and a blues-rock, funk, and soul goddess.
In 2015 the Pennington resident moved from West Virginia to New Jersey to pursue graduate studies in opera at Westminster Choir College and earned her master’s degree in 2017.
Along with her rigorous class schedule, preparing for classical recitals, and auditioning for opera companies in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, Essie began singing blues-based rock, soul, and R&B at open mic nights in New Hope, Pennsylvania, especially at John & Peter’s, and really tapped into something.
The nice young lady who had sung in church and the school choir discovered a talent she had never realized before: that she could sing rock ‘n’ roll, blues, soul, and funk, and could really belt it out, in fact. “I liked it a lot,” she says. “I didn’t know I could sing any of that repertoire.”
“When I graduated (from Westminster) I was living a double life — studying opera and doing classical performances, and on the weekends singing rock,” Essie continues. “I realized there were only so many hours in the day, and I was so enticed by all the freedom of singing rock and pop, so I made the decision. Also I was exploring songwriting, and my writing was much more suited for this.”
As far as the split personality between “Essie” and “Sarah Riddle,” the owner of both names says the change was a professional decision.
She explains that “Essie” was formed by phonetically spelling out the initials of her first and middle names, “Sarah Ellen.”
“I was still auditioning for opera companies, and I needed a pseudonym to keep my rock/R&B persona separate,” she says. “I envisioned (the opera personnel) Googling ‘Sarah Riddle’ and finding me singing Led Zeppelin or something, which would not have been good.”
Come to Communiversity in Princeton on Sunday, April 28, where Essie will be performing with friends on the “Town and Gown” stage at 3:25 p.m.
Sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton, the free, rain or shine the festival runs 1 to 6 p.m. throughout downtown Princeton.
Essie played Communiversity last year, but this is her first time on the main stage, and she and her band will be doing a mix of covers and originals all with her high-energy stage presence and powerful vocals.
If you can’t catch Essie at the annual Princeton festivities, she will be back in town Friday, May 17, at Triumph Brewing Company on Nassau Street for a late night show.
That weekend she will also be singing at Pennington Day on Saturday, May 1, at 2 p.m. (The free festival runs from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. on South Main Street).
In June you can hear Essie at the Greenhouse in New Hope on Friday, June 21. These are just the performances that are close to central New Jersey; she performs at many other venues throughout the tri-state region.
Although her first band, The Big Chill, has disbanded, as a solo artist Essie is well-known enough in the area to collaborate with a number of different musicians in a variety of styles and genres.
She has been singing with the “Invitational” (open mic night) house band at John & Peter’s in New Hope, led by Mickey Melchiondo (Dean Ween from Ween), and featuring other gifted musicians such as funk/rock guitarist Michael Hampton, formerly with Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk).
(Hampton’s youthful skills earned him the nickname “Kidd Funkadelic,” christened by none other than the pilot of the “Mothership” himself, P-Funk founder George Clinton.)
Funny thing is, prior to her arrival in New Jersey, Essie had never really heard funk or soul or even much R&B.
“I now realize I was raised on a lot of country music and also exposed to bluegrass,” she says. “As I get older I know now the church music that was so normal to me was a combination of bluegrass and southern gospel in its roots. But until I came to this area I hadn’t been exposed to much soul and funk — maybe Aretha Franklin, but nothing like P-Funk. So suddenly I was exploring all this great stuff, a whole new world.”
Although she still loves classical music, Essie has put her opera aspirations on hold for a while thanks to a busy, busy schedule. She used to wait tables at Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton, but she has risen through the ranks and now books and manages the talent at Triumph New Hope.
She has also been singing background regularly with Philadelphia-based roots/reggae band Jah People, and soul/pop singer, storyteller, and bandleader Remember Jones.
In addition, Essie has sung with folks such as 2002 American Idol standout Justin Guarini, and Junior Marvin — known for his association with Bob Marley and the Wailers, among others. Her backup work has taken her to venues like the Brooklyn Bowl, House of Independents in Asbury Park, and the venerable Ardmore Music Hall outside of Philadelphia.
Just last month she released a new single titled “Ain’t Right” (found on iTunes, as well as on her website, www.essiemusicofficial.com), which features a touch of blues, soul, and even the church music Riddle grew up with in West Virginia.
On her website she discusses the origins of the song, noting that she “just sang into her phone for about 10 to 15 minutes,” then her formal music training kicked in and she went back, listened to the melody, and wrote the harmonic structure.
The song was written after a bad breakup, and the two words “Ain’t Right” seemed to say it all.
“I started humming along and free-styling some lyrics and the words ‘ain’t right’ happened and felt like this hook,” Essie says. “I feel like those two words have a lot of connotation that really led to how the entire song is shaped.”
She inadvertently plumbed the church and gospel music of her childhood in West Virginia to flesh out the music, but also to find a kind of sanctuary during a dark time.
“After a break-up or any heartbreak you naturally want to retreat and take refuge where you’re loved and supported,” she says. “I’m from West Virginia, so I think that side of my background shines in a song like this, but it wasn’t intentional or planned. In hindsight I think those influences came through, though.”
Speaking of influences, Riddle says she bugged her older cousins to play Stevie Nicks and Dwight Yoakam when they used to babysit. She later raided her dad’s collection of music, especially keen on David Bowie, Aerosmith, and the soundtrack to “Phantom of the Opera.”
Older listeners could hear a bit of Janis Joplin in her sound, but a more modern comparison for Essie’s voice might be the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, or even Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, as well as Plant in his ongoing solo projects.
In fact, Zeppelin fans will smile at Essie and The Big Chill’s cover of “Whole Lotta Love,” performed at one of John & Peter’s open mic sessions. (You can see the video on her website.)
Born and raised in Hurricane, West Virginia, (pronounced HER-kin, Essie jokes), she says her father is a stock broker and her mother worked, first, for a coal resource consultant group, and then for the AARP. Essie muses that there might be something in the waters of her hometown: it’s that musically rich.
“Our church had so many talented singers, then at high school, we had a competitive show choir, and that’s what really pushed me into music,” she says. “I loved show choir so much, I wanted to lead a choir.”
She went to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, to pursue a degree in music education, but completed her undergraduate studies with a double major in both music and special education in 2014.
Thanks to her mother, who regularly took young Sarah to the symphony, she had loved instrumental classical music since childhood, but at college she found herself immersed in all aspects of vocal music, from opera to Gregorian chant.
“I’d always learned to sing by ear, so I picked up on classical pretty well,” Essie says. “The more I learned, the more success I had, and I just kept going forward.”
For graduate school, she had her eye on quite a few schools, focusing on a handful of renowned voice teachers. Westminster stood out though, even among all those other choices.
“Just being on campus, I felt it was a very rich environment,” she says. “I knew the studies would be rigorous, but if you graduated from Westminster, people would know you were at a certain level.”
“Westminster’s faculty is world-class, and must have had some 10 different people I would have loved to study with,” she adds. “I was most excited to study with internationally known opera singer Sharon Sweet.”
As a classical vocalist, Essie/Riddle has sung at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Sir Simon Rattle in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. She has also sung with Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra for multiple works, as well as several performances with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
Over the years she has been recognized for numerous awards, including the Hobson Award for Vocal Excellence, and first place honors in both the Eloise-Campbell Long Competition, and West Virginia National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) competition.
Right now, however, Essie’s heart and soul are dedicated to rock/pop/blues/funk and the other genres she explores, mostly around New Hope.
“It’s a place where I have a nice little fan base, especially at the ‘Invitational’ at John & Peter’s,” she says. “It’s open mic, but facilitated by the house band, so the members might change any night. You never know who you’ll be onstage with. They’re all from this area though, which is a testament to how much talent there is here.”
Communiversity. Sunday, April 28, 1 to 6 p.m. Essie performs on the “Town and Gown” stage at 3:25 p.m. Rain or shine. Free. 609-924-8777 or artscouncilofprinceton.org.
Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, Princeton. Friday, May 17, 10 p.m. 609-924-7855 or www.triumphbrewing.com.
Pennington Day, 37 South Main Street, Pennington. Saturday, May 18, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Essie performs at 2 p.m. Rain or Shine. Free. www.penningtonday.org
The Greenhouse, 90 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Friday, June 21, 9 p.m. 215-693-1657 or www.greenhousenewhope.com
“Is there a doctor in the house?” That question has been asked frantically at entertainment venues when a member of the audience or cast has suffered a medical emergency. On Saturday, April 27, from 5 to 8 p.m. (and probably later) at the Nassau Inn’s Yankee Doodle Tap Room, there will be a doctor in the house — on stage, in fact — entertaining at a fundraiser for a Nassau Inn employee currently undergoing treatments for leukemia.
The doctor-singer is Marco Funiciello, a physiatrist who practices physical medicine and rehabilitation with Princeton Spine and Joint Center. Funiciello first performed at the Tap Room in June of last year, and most recently appeared in a duet with his bother on St. Patrick’s Day. Funiciello will donate his fee to the fund supporting the front desk manager, Kyle Damm, and Princeton Spine and Joint Center will match the amount. The Tap Room is also committing a share of its proceeds to the cause and will auction off various items to raise more money.
Funiciello is familiar with both medical fundraising and entertaining. He recently hiked to the summit of Mt. Kilamanjaro and helped raise money and medical supplies for a local hospital in the process. He previously hiked to base camp at Mount Everest. Later this year he will travel on a medical mission to Haiti.
Originally from Carlstadt, New Jersey, Funiciello took piano lessons as a kid but fell into singing when he drove a high school friend to an audition as a vocalist for a rock band. The band didn’t like the sound of the friend, and Funiciello asked if he could try. He joined that band, took guitar lessons, and continued his music — playing in bands, doing solo gigs, and appearing with his brother — in his spare time at the University of Scranton and while earning his doctor of osteopathy degree at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
Funiciello moved to Princeton in 2010, and took a break from performing until last year, when he started to play shows at the Nassau Inn’s Tap Room. “I sing and play acoustic guitar and perform a mix of alternative, rock, reggae, classic rock, Irish, and Italian,” he says. “It’s an eclectic mix and you never know what you will get.”
But with a doctor in the house, you might also get some insight into modern medicine. Funiciello notes that blood and platelet donations, such as those needed by Kyle Damm, are in short supply in New Jersey. Damm’s transfusions, in fact, have come from the Washington, D.C., area. People wanting to help but unable to make a monetary donation could support that cause by making a blood donation to any New Jersey blood bank.
Funiciello also puts in a word for physical fitness, particularly ultimate frisbee “because it is a wonderfully athletic sport that can be played well into one’s advanced years and incorporates both men and women and people of all different ages,” he says. One of the original frisbee leagues is the Broadmead Ultimate Frisbeeheads (frisbeeheads.org), which meets Sundays at 3 p.m. at the corner of Broadmead and Western Way in Princeton. If you show up the day after the Nassau Inn benefit you may find the same doctor on the field who was in the house the night before.
Somerset Valley Players hosts auditions for the musical “Urinetown” on Saturday, April 27, at 1 p.m., and Monday, April 29, at 7 p.m. Callbacks take place Saturday, May 4. The show runs September 6 through 22, 2019. The director seeks 10 adult males and six adult females, ages 20 to 40+. All auditioners must provide a current resume/headshot and properly marked sheet music. An accompanist will be provided. Prepare 32 bars of a comedic musical theater song not from this show.
The theater is located at 689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough. For more information or to register for a time slot visit www.svptheatre.org or call 908-369-7469.
Call for Art
Artists age 18 or older who live, work, or attend school in Mercer County are invited to submit their art for consideration for the “Mercer County Artists 2019” exhibition. The show, presented in partnership the Mercer County Cultural & Heritage Commission, takes place at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor.
Artists may enter up to two original works completed since May, 2017, in any media except photography. An entry fee of $10 for one piece and $15 for two must accompany entries. More than $1,000 in purchase and merit prizes will be awarded. Mercer County Cultural and Heritage Commission Purchase Award winners become part of the county’s permanent art collection.
The submission period begins with early drop-off on Thursday, May 9, noon to 3 p.m., followed by Saturday drop-off on May 11, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Judging takes place on Sunday, May 12 at 10 a.m. Pick-up of works not accepted for the show is May 12, 2 to 5 p.m., and Monday, May 13, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A list of accepted artwork will be posted at 3 p.m. outside the Gallery on May 12 and also posted on a website provided to all entrants.
The juror is painter Lauren Whearty, co-director of Ortega y Gasset Projects, a non-profit artist run gallery in Brooklyn, NY.
The Mercer County Artists exhibit will be on display from Monday, May 20 to Monday, July 8. An Opening Reception and Awards Ceremony will be held Wednesday, May 22, 5 to 7:30 p.m. The show is free and open to the public. For more information on submitting work and general gallery information, visit www.mccc.edu/gallery.
The New Brunswick Free Public Library presents its 12th annual photography contest. This year’s theme is love and unity. The submission deadline is Friday, May 10.
Submission forms and full details are available at the library, 60 Livingston Avenue; George Street Camera, 344 George Street; Alfa Art Gallery, 108 Church Street; Above Art Studios, 55B Morris Street; and on the library’s website: www.nbfpl.org/photocontest.
Professional photographers and library staff will judge submissions. On Friday, June 14, at 6:30 p.m., there will be an opening reception and award ceremony. Winning photos will be exhibited at Above Art Studios for one week. Photographs entered in the contest will be displayed in an exhibition at the New Brunswick Free Public Library until July 14.
Nowhere is the contrast between the federal government’s actions and those of New Jersey starker than when it comes to addressing the serious threat that climate change poses to our health and economic wellbeing.
The Trump administration has its head in the sand on climate change. The president and his appointees promote a reckless fossil-fueled energy agenda that disregards science and — willfully or otherwise — puts our health, safety, and economy in grave danger. Most recently, President Trump signed an executive order that amounts to an unprecedented power grab to reduce states’ authority under the Clean Water Act to stop unneeded oil and natural-gas pipelines that would damage their waterways. In reality no executive order can waive that well-established legal right.
That leaves it up to states to take the lead in responding to the enormous threat of climate change, and New Jersey is stepping up, big time. That’s especially important in a coastal state like ours that has seen up close the toll taken from superstorms, rising seas, and more frequent and intense flood events.
In 2007, long before Donald Trump took office, New Jersey adopted far-reaching legislation, the Global Warming Response Act, that requires harmful greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 80 percent by 2050. Unfortunately, the act was never implemented during Governor Christie’s tenure. Science took a back, seat and the state lost precious time.
Fortunately, we now have a governor and legislative leaders who understand the urgency and are making addressing climate change a priority.
Thanks to Senators Bob Smith, Kip Bateman, and Linda Greenstein, the State Senate passed legislation in March — via a bipartisan 29-6 vote — to strengthen the Global Warming Response Act, including amendments that require establishment of interim benchmarks and adoption of measures to make sure New Jersey gets on track to meet the emissions reductions targets under the act. If the Assembly approves the measure, Governor Murphy has made clear his intention to sign into law this important step toward a healthier, safer, cleaner New Jersey.
At ReThink Energy NJ, we’re proud of our efforts in support of making real the promise of the Global Warming Response Act. We are working to inform and empower New Jersey decision makers and residents to make this a state with sensible energy policies that reduce harmful emissions, save consumers money, and create tens of thousands of good local jobs. Our campaign is leading the charge to transition New Jersey away from polluting fossil fuels to clean, affordable, renewable energy such as wind and solar. To this end we worked in concert with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund to support the landmark clean energy law Governor Murphy signed last year.
For those who share a sense of urgency about dealing with the threat of climate change, and are frustrated by the harmful policies coming out of Washington that promote more polluting pipelines instead of the infrastructure we need for a clean-energy future, this is New Jersey’s best opportunity to take matters into our own hands. Join us in calling on the Assembly to ensure that New Jersey rises to address the challenge of climate change by strengthening and implementing the Global Warming Response Act.
As someone who follows workplace strategies and social trends, Melissa Marsh sees huge advantages and increasing popularity in mixed-use developments.
“More experience-centric environments are now cropping up across the spaces in which we live, work, and play,” she says. “A higher level of service and a focus on creating a great experience is being rewarded and expected in all of these places.”
While Marsh is not advocating the notion that people should live, work, and play in the same space, she says the concept “would certainly confer benefits in terms of transportation and environmental issues.”
Marsh will be the keynote speaker at the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce on Friday, April 26, at 7:30 a.m. at the Springdale Golf Club, 1895 Clubhouse Drive, Princeton. Mitchell Weitz, head of real estate & workplace service for Bristol-Myers Squibb, will give opening remarks. Tickets are $40, $30 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonmercerchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Marsh is the founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a New York-based social research and design consulting company, that among other things, partners with developers, realtors, and designers to integrate workplace design through social metrics. She is also a senior managing director at Savills Studley, a multinational real estate services provider. A transplanted New Yorker, Marsh has lived in many places — Boston, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Washington DC, however, she says she has never really left the Big Apple nor has it left her. Marsh says she arrived in New York City from Central Florida a decade or so ago with, “Two duffel bags, got on a bus and rode wide-eyed along 125th Street on a summer weekend afternoon,” and never looked back.
Today she is married and has three children. She earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and an master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts of Technology.
Changes in social integration are driving a need to create buildings and infrastructure that benefit residents as well as the environment. Real estate trends are shifting with emphasis on providing more human-focused spaces for residential and workplace environments. A cubicle in an office is not the only place work gets done. Any space that generates and creates value is a workplace.
“Strategic and organizational guidelines to achieve a specific business purpose have a large impact on the success or demise of an organization and the ultimate experience of an employee,” Marsh says. “Our focus is on human-centric design, which includes how companies function and includes people-based research and focus on human factors.” She added that mobile devices have already drastically extend the hours of work into what have been traditionally non-work hours.
Marsh says designers, planners, realtors, and others should perhaps, be looking for trends and inspiration in non-traditional sources. For example, broader changes to the urban environment often transcend to the work place and the consumerization of the workplace that has been brought on by app-based purchasing and office customization technology. “There is a push toward accommodating a wider range of preferences and work styles and habits like activity-based working,” she says. The concept and subsequent technology is designed to enable individuals to move from space to space throughout the day as needed. She adds, “People are now designing offices to look more like homes.”
Lastly, Marsh says, solving the work-life integration conundrum can be daunting. However, flexibility in when, how, and where one works is the common thread. “People at different stages of life have different expectations — from youth who want flexible hours to pre-retirees seeking to taper down,” she says. “We spend too much of our lives at work, and these experiences should be awesome and enrich the other parts of our life — expect more and demand more from your workplace.”