I was on a chartered bus with about 40 other people—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists, one Buddhist, and one Wiccan priest. We were united in being people of faith, in being mostly white and middle class, and in touring part of Newark, New Jersey as part of the Environmental Justice retreat of GreenFaith’s Fellowship Program.
I already knew that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation; if there are toxic emissions or pollution to be found in a community, it’s most likely on the “other side of the tracks,” where poverty and the legacy of racism and discrimination combine to form communities that have little leverage in the fight against larger corporate interests. And so it is in the Ironbound, a historically immigrant community in Newark, so-named because it is bounded on three sides by railroad tracks—and on the fourth side, by Newark Airport.
Today, the Ironbound is home to more than 50,000 people, mostly Portuguese and Spanish speakers, a majority of them foreign-born. The community struggles with chronic poverty and unemployment, and residents’ average income is a meager $16,000 per year. Our tour guide, Dr. Ana Baptista of the Ironbound Community Corporation, pointed out the great irony of the situation: here we were, right next to the third largest seaport in the U.S., a port that brings goods from around the globe to the largest consumer market in the world… and local residents are left out, saddled instead with an excess of pollution—a good portion of it diesel exhaust from trucks transporting those goods, and bunker fuel exhaust from the ships in port.
We drove by the port and then made our way through the “Chemical Corridor,” a narrow strip of land lined with dozens of chemical manufacturing plants. There was a fat-rendering plant, some metal plants, a sewage treatment plant, one that made “natural flavors” (what is that, anyway?), and more. And then, in the midst of all this, the Essex County Correctional Facility. And a proposed immigration detention facility to be used to house families. I started to feel sick to my stomach.
The bus crossed some railroad tracks and rounded a corner, then pulled over to a stop in what was suddenly a residential neighborhood. We all filed out to stand on the sidewalk in front of an artificial turf park (a turf park because the soil beneath is too contaminated for a natural grass park to be safe). The Ironbound has the lowest per capita recreation space in the state, so parks are precious. This one was full of kids of all ages—toddlers and their parents by playground equipment for little ones, elementary-aged kids playing tag in an open area, and older youth playing softball a little further off. It looked like a nice park, and a welcome relief from the rest of the neighborhood.
We strained to hear our tour guide over the frequent sound of large trucks speeding by and the din of airplanes roaring overhead every three minutes. With pauses for the noise, our guide explained how a few years ago, the community was concerned that runoff from an abandoned metal plant next to the park might be contaminating park grounds.
Under pressure from community groups, officials tested the park… and discovered that the artificial turf had been made with lead-based paint. We heard about one family across the street whose baby had lead poisoning; the father used to go running every morning, unwittingly bringing tiny flecks of lead-based paint home with him on his shoes. The park has been re-turfed since then, and the nearby metal plant “remediated.”
Back on the bus now, we drove a few streets over and got out again, this time within sight of the largest solid waste incinerator in the state, a facility that burns about 2,800 tons of waste every day, half of it from New York City. The incinerator is located within ½ mile of two low-income federal housing complexes and adjacent to low-income neighborhoods with a combined population of 8,000 people. It emits hundreds of pounds of mercury every year and has been in violation of the Clean Air Act for the past six years.
We stood within sight, too, of the Passaic River. Between us and the river was the Diamond/Alkali Superfund site, where 60% of the Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War was produced. After the war, the plant was abandoned, but standing piles of Agent Orange remained. Children used to play on the large piles of dioxin, and of course it ran into the river—17 miles of which is now also classified as a Superfund site due to contamination. In the 1980’s, regulators “discovered” the dioxin and entombed the site in concrete. Cleanup of the Passaic River is just beginning, though—and there are questions about what to do with the toxic sludge once it’s dredged up out of the water.
Standing there, it hit me: this is where we throw stuff away—all the stuff we don’t want. Including people.
In the media, the environmental movement is often associated with white, upper-middle class concern about endangered frogs, or bees, or polar bears. And yes, loss of species is certainly part of the environmental challenges that we face. But as it turns out, we people are part of the environment, too. We need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and non-toxic earth on which to run and play and garden. The environmental justice tour of the Ironbound community clearly illustrated for me the links between disregard for some groups of people—especially communities of color and those living in poverty—and disregard for the environment. These are not separate issues; concern for the well-being of all people and concern for the environment are interconnected concerns.
“Some are guilty. All are responsible.” These words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel resonated for many of us who toured the Ironbound that day. We as individuals don’t work at any of the companies who are polluting Newark’s air, water, or land, and we didn’t, through our own negligence, cause children to get sick through exposure to toxic chemicals, but we recognized that we do participate in the systems and structures that have created those conditions.
Pollution from the port is fueled by our addiction to consumerism, for example, and pollution from the waste incinerator is fueled by the false notion that our stuff is disposable, or that there is such a thing as "away."
Jewish tradition speaks to the responsibility that accompanies such awareness:
All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing] and does not protest, is held accountable for their family. [All who can protest against something wrong that] a citizen of their city [is doing and does not protest], is held accountable for all citizens of the city. [All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world. –Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b (translation by Rabbi Lawrence Troster)
Once we know, we are obligated to act.