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Toms River: A story of science and salvation by Dan Fagin. Bantam Books 2013.

For most of its existence, the community of Toms River, in New Jersey, was a sleepy little hamlet set on the banks of its eponymous river. Things began to change in 1949. That’s when a major chemical company, Ciba, purchased a huge 1,350 acre property with one edge bordering the river. The Swiss-owned company hollowed out a 35 acre site in the midst of the dense pine stands that covered the property and set about building the facilities where they planned to produce thousands of pounds of vat dyes every day, around the clock, as cheaply as possible. Ciba had been making vat dyes in Basel since 1907 and in Cincinnati for almost as long before moving to Toms River.

Ciba became a major employer in the depressed area with limited opportunities and, at its peak, had more than a thousand employees. Toms River began to grow rapidly and suburban areas sprang up outside the factory gates. Ciba was a good neighbour, offering well-paying jobs and supporting community undertakings. But Ciba was also a major polluter. The huge amounts of toxic waste that were produced in the dye manufacturing process had to be disposed of. Toxic waste was dumped in the waters of little Toms River, buried in lagoons where it leaked into groundwater, incinerated and released into the air, and pumped through a miles-long pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean. Nor was Ciba the only polluter. Union Carbide was also responsible for the improper storage of waste poisons.

There was plenty of blame to go around for the resulting mess. The town’s water supplier kept problems with water quality secret as it struggled to keep up with burgeoning demand, and government officials at every level turned a blind eye to the pollution. After decades of polluting, Ciba eventually wound up its operations in Toms River, with some of the production work moving to cheaper Asian factories. But not before the town’s water supply was impacted and some people began asking questions about the number of childhood cancers being diagnosed in the area.

After government investigations costing millions of dollars were completed, some 60 families with children with cancer received compensation. The factory dumps and the Union Carbide dump site became Superfund cleanup initiatives.

That’s a very brief accounting of events. In Toms River, Dan Fagin relates the six decades that followed the arrival of the chemical plant in detail. His writing is thorough and unrushed, but never dull. The facts are fleshed out with interesting background information about the chemical industry, the history of cancer research, and the difficulties relating to recognising cancer clusters. Many citizens of Toms River, factory workers, medical workers, state employees, researchers and others are brought to life in the pages of Fagin’s book. Although Toms River is not light reading, it doesn’t drag and there is some feeling of closure in the conclusion. Fagin looks only at human costs of the pollution and does not attempt to address the toll pollution has taken on the natural world.

The book is subtitled A Story of Science and Salvation. Science, maybe, but I don’t know about salvation. Things will never be completely “normal” in Toms River. All those chemicals can never be 100% reclaimed. And as for improved oversight, as recently as 2005, two senior executives working for the town’s water supplier, United Water, faked a safety test and filed a false report rather than take wells offline over concerns of radium contamination.

The thing about Toms River is that although the details are specific to one town, the larger story is told again and again and again, ad nauseam. A quick search with Google turned up the ongoing battle of citizens in Pompton Lakes in northern New Jersey. A report by Ben Horowitz for the Star-Ledger reads:

DuPont manufactured explosives at the 570-acre site from 1902 to 1994 and has been responsible for the cleanup since 1988. Its practices contaminated surface water, soil, sediment and groundwater both on and off site, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has primary responsibility for investigating and overseeing the cleanup of the former manufacturing facility, while EPA is the lead agency for the cleanup of the nearby Acid Brook Delta, the EPA said.

Lisa Riggiola, executive director of Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes, said the groups believe full federal control “will bring true oversight and ensure that a goal will be set for a high-standard residential cleanup.”

Riggiola said Acid Brook, which links the DuPont site to Pompton Lake, was recently found by the EPA to be “recontaminated.”

Christie defended the DEP’s management of the site at a press conference Tuesday, when the groups presented petitions signed by 10,000 people demanding the Superfund designation.

“I would say to the folks in Pompton Lakes, be careful what you wish for,” Christie said. “There are EPA Superfund sites all over the state that have not been remediated under the supervision of the EPA under any administration … I think the DEP has a good plan and they’re moving forward with it.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, said the DEP “has mismanaged this site for years, and it has only worsened with toxic chemicals spreading under people’s homes.”

While the chemical dumps involved in these cases were established years ago, there is no sign that things are changing. For an eye-opening look at the trampling of citizens’ rights to clean drinking water, Gasland II is essential viewing. The documentary was shown on HBO recently and is well worth catching. Here’s a link to the Gasland website.

Here in Canada, of course, we have the Alberta tar sands disaster well under way. While governments should be protecting the rights of citizens and ensuring that development only progresses at a pace that allows for adequate oversight and the preservation of water resources, instead governments at every level abdicate their responsibility. A recent report showed that Alberta acts on less than 1% of environmental violations in the tar sands. Citizens of Fort Chipewyan have had an uphill battle looking for help with concerns over cancer.

Even the recent Lac-Megantic disaster can be laid at the feet of government agencies that looked the other way as safety regulations were gutted. Maude Barlow’s article on this topic is linked here. The following is a short excerpt.

Starting back in the 1970s, the US government deregulated rail transport, allowing deep staff reductions, the removal of brakemen from trains and lower safety standards for shipping hazardous materials. Canadian governments followed suit and allowed the railways to self-regulate safety standards and continue to ship oil in the older, accident-prone tanker cars of the kind that crashed into Lac-Mégantic.

Just last year, Transport Canada gave Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways the green light to run each train with just one engineer, which explains how one man came to be in charge of 72 cars and five locomotives carrying combustible energy through inhabited communities.

For an introduction to environmental cancers you can do no better than Sandra Steingraber’s fine book Living Downstream, also available as a documentary film. Toms River is a worthy addition to the literature of industrial pollution and cancer.

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