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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Victory at Ironbound

Air Date: Week of

For nearly twenty years, residents of Ironbound, a largely immigrant section of Newark, New Jersey have fought the citing of incinerators, landfills and superfund sites in their community. Today, they're claiming an important victory after state officials put on hold plans to site a sludge treatment plant there. The state decision is based, in part, on meeting the requirements set out in President Clinton's executive order on environmental justice. From member station W-B-G-O, Kim Childs reports.


CURWOOD: For nearly 20 years residents of Ironbound, a largely immigrant section of Newark, New Jersey, have battled the toxic threats of incinerators, landfills, and Superfund sites. Today they're celebrating, after state officials decided to hold up plans to locate a sewage treatment plant in their community. The state decision is based in part on meeting the requirements set out in President Clinton's executive order on environmental justice. From member station WBGO, Kim Childs explains.

(A train horn blares; bells ring)

CHILDS: Newark's Ironbound community is named for the railroad tracks that separate it from the rest of the city, and for decades the Ironbound has been on the wrong side of the tracks for environmental health. Today, Tiwana Steward Griffin is standing outside a garbage transfer station in the community, surveying the old tires, abandoned vehicles, and cardboard shelters that dot the landscape.

(A dog barks)

STEWARD GRIFFIN: Really, this is almost a dumping ground, you know. You have homeless people living here.

CHILDS: But when Steward Griffin turns around, she points to a school and a tidy row of houses just a few blocks away. She says that's why she opposes a plan to site a sludge treatment plant in the neighborhood.

STEWARD GRIFFIN: The emissions and also the smells that would just come from such a facility, you know, being, infringe upon the human rights of these home owners suggests, you know, have a good quality of life.

CHILDS: Steward Griffin heads the Ironbound Committee Against Toxic Waste, a group locked in battle with Wheelabrator Technologies. Wheelabrator is under contract with the local sewage commission to treat tons of sludge for reuse as landfill. Sludge is the substance that remains when liquid is removed from raw sewage. Two years ago, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection gave Wheelabrator the initial go-ahead for the Ironbound plant. Now, the state has denied the final permit, citing objections from community groups, Newark officials, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Dennis Hart directs the state's Division of Water Quality.

HART: The grounds for the objection so far have been that based on the number of environmental problem sites in that community, adding another one is not something that should be allowed under the President's executive order.

CHILDS: In 1994, President Clinton ordered Federal agencies to consider the issue of environmental justice when making decisions about poor or minority communities with a disproportionate share of environmental hazards. The US EPA says the Ironbound qualifies because it's home to a large minority population, and it already has one sewage treatment plant, a county garbage incinerator, scores of contaminated properties, and a Superfund site loaded with dioxin. State agencies are not ruled by the President's order, but Dennis Hart says the EPA's concerns are enough to halt the project while New Jersey formulates its response.

HART: By saying that I'm not laying out any particular conditions because this is something really new to us in New Jersey, how to deal with environmental justice. There are no regulations on it, there aren't any hard and fast tests to apply. I don't know of any other cases that I could look at and say yeah, this fits into it, some other cases. So we're sort of in uncharted territory with this.

CHILDS: New Jersey is the first state to formally deny a siting permit based on the President's environmental justice order. And Rachel Godsil says she hopes it sets a precedent. Godsil coordinates the environmental justice program at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. She says the issue is being raised across the nation to protect low income and minority residents from toxic hazards.

GODSIL: What I hope will happen is that companies will now look for places to site facilities, not for political expediency but for using environmental criteria. They'll look for places where they'll have the least effect on human health, and they won't make the calculus with the notion that some communities will protest and some communities won't.

CHILDS: Wheelabrator officials say they're confused and frustrated by the state's reversal. Pam Racey is a vice president in the company's Bio-Grow division. She says Wheelabrator has made a concerted effort to meet environmental standards and address community concerns about the Ironbound plant.

RACEY: We've gotten all of our permits. We have an air permit. We have an operating permit. This is the final construction permit. And, you know, it's taken us 3 years to get these permits. Now all of a sudden they say oh, you know, just start over somewhere else.

CHILDS: Wheelabrator is appealing the state's ruling and meeting with environmental officials to try and understand their objections. Ironbound activists are also meeting with state officials to try and parlay the recent decision into a formal environmental justice policy for New Jersey. Joseph Nardone is a lifelong resident of the Ironbound.

NARDONE: A lot of people will think twice about coming in here because of the activism of the community, that they know that they just can't come in and set up facilities. That they will be challenged. This victory over the sludge facility is really a major one that even government went along with us. So it gives us incentive that we do have an effect beyond our community.

CHILDS: A final decision on the Ironbound sludge treatment plant is expected by the end of the year. For Living on Earth, I'm Kim Childs in Newark.



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