Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Commitment to Uncovering Local Environmental Issues

Toxic sites map/North
The headlines in a recent newspaper series unveiled a shocking story: “DEP let poison flow for decades” … “North Jersey riddled with failed cleanups” … “Desperate to move, but bound to stay; Residents say homes in Superfund site are worthless.”

Got your attention? That’s the intent of the “Toxic Landscape” series that The Record, a daily newspaper in northern New Jersey, has instituted as an on-going investigative look at industrial contamination lingering in local communities in its coverage area. Here’s the opening salvo in a three-part expose by Record environmental writer Scott Fallon that burst from the front pages recently:

     A highly toxic industrial chemical has been spreading under a Garfield neighborhood for almost three decades, slowly seeping into homes and threatening the health of thousands.
     Residents live in fear that hexavalent chromium is infiltrating their basements, that their families could get cancer and that their property values have been destroyed.
     And state officials allowed it all to happen.
     What occurred in Garfield over the course of 28 years is a story of an environmental oversight system that failed the people it was supposed to protect. In instance after instance, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection showed poor judgment, lax enforcement and bureaucratic indifference to an emerging public health threat….

After detailing the spreading contamination through groundwater under an urban neighborhood and the startling lack of government action even after a city firehouse was closed in 1993 due to the hazardous substance seeping into the basement, Fallon’s report widened the scope of the problem to encompass many more communities:

“Garfield is one of the more egregious examples of failed environmental oversight. But all over North Jersey there are botched cleanups caused by questionable decisions, bureaucratic indifference or both,” Fallon wrote. "’There are Garfields in literally every corner of this state,’ said Robert Spiegel, head of Edison Wetlands, an environmental advocacy group. ‘The system for cleaning thousands of sites has been dysfunctional, chaotic, and it just doesn’t work,’" Fallon’s report added, after listing a number of failed, incomplete or barely ever started contamination investigations and cleanups in North Jersey towns that have been periodically in and out of the news.

The back story behind this unusual newspaper series—which began last year with a detailed examination of unfinished cleanups at several federal Superfund sites across the region—is a recognition by The Record’s editors and publisher that hazardous waste cleanups habitually stall when there’s no on-going, in depth news coverage.

That realization was crystallized by a previous investigative series in 2005 called “Toxic Legacy,” which showed how the US Environmental Protection Agency allowed Ford Motor Company to claim it had cleaned up a toxic waste dump in the late 1980s in Ringwood, NJ. The newspaper investigation, which I participated in as a reporter, uncovered the fact that the officially approved cleanup barely scratched the surface of buried mounds of lead-based paint sludge and other potentially cancer-causing contamination that local residents, environmental groups and newspaper reporters found and made public.

A far more substantial cleanup has taken place since that investigative series, with every step reported by local newspapers, sometimes bird-dogged by national news organizations and further exposed to a wide television audience by a documentary shown on HBO titled “Mann v. Ford,” after the name of a lawsuit by residents of the affected residential area.

Yet, despite the residents’ lawsuit, the renewed cleanup in Ringwood stalled once the initial flurry of news coverage subsided. Record editors then expanded the “Toxic Legacy” coverage into on-going, frequent update reports published under the same label.

“The [initial] story was about the government’s failure to live up to its promise,” Tim Nostrand, The Record’s editor for investigative projects, told a gathering in September at Columbia University’s Journalism School that honored new and past winners of the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. The “Toxic Legacy” investigative team led by Nostrand won the 2006 Grantham Prize, among a number of other national journalism awards.

Once congratulations on winning major awards are collected, news organizations usually ease off covering that topic and move on. But Record editors found their readers appreciated the “Toxic Legacy” coverage. And they found that government officials slipped back into old habits once that coverage eased off.  “We did a five-year look back and found history repeating itself. We’re now staying on top of that,” Nostrand added in his account of how one investigative project morphed into a long-term commitment.

On top of reporting every new twist and turn in the Ringwood Superfund site case, six years after publishing a series that shook up the EPA, Record editors have assigned municipal reporters to dig into environmental contamination issues in the towns they cover, Nostrand told the audience of award-winning journalists, journalism professors and students at Columbia. Previously, as was my experience during a more than 20-year career at The Record, municipal reporters often ignored environmental issues unless they were prepared to wrangle with editors to provide time from the relentless pressure to file daily news stories in order to dig into often complex, hidden contamination problems.

The latest in The Record’s remarkable “Toxic Landscape” local reports rolled out this week. The first day’s headline conveyed a double drum-roll: “DPW cleanup tab put at $200,000; Decades-old pollution ‘ignored’ mayor says.” And thus residents of Dumont, NJ were told about the mounting costs of inaction by local officials and the state environmental protection agency in dealing with contamination from leaking gasoline storage tanks at the municipal Department of Public Works property dating back to the 1980s.

A Dumont Borough Council subcommittee trying to get to the bottom of why nothing was done, despite a DEP order in 1992 to do a cleanup, got some astounding responses, Record reporter Rebecca D. O’Brien found. A former councilman who served in 2004-2009 said “We never discussed any issues of any gasoline spills or any contamination down at that site,” O’Brien reported in her second-day article.

Another former councilman who served in 2003-2008 put this kind of investigative story into glaring perspective, when he testified that “he didn’t even know about the DPW contamination until he read about it in the newspaper,” O’Brien added.

So that readers can follow the newspaper’s probing into the tangled, toxic mess underlying much of the Garden State, The Record offers on its web site a special projects section titled “Toxic Landscape: Tracking contaminated sites in North Jersey,” which provides interactive maps and hotlinks to an extensive list of investigative articles on local contamination sites.

For more information:


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Why Do Superfund Environmental Cleanups Take Decades?

Tuesday 10/4/11 "Why is Environmental Cleanup So Slow?” Panel Discussion at Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ

Friends Hall (SC219) in Student Center, 6:30-9 p.m. 

The regional head of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, Walter Mugdan, will speak Tuesday on a panel with Ramapo College professors. Other panelists are Adjunct Professor Jan Barry Crumb, who teaches environmental writing; Adjunct Professor Chuck Stead, who teaches courses in environmental investigations; and environmental studies Professor Michael Edelstein, the panel chair.

The event, which is open to the public, is sponsored by the Ramapo College Institute of Environmental Studies.The panel will discuss why environmental cleanups at Superfund sites often take decades, with a focus on the Ringwood Mines Superfund site in New Jersey and sites near the Town of Ramapo landfill in Rockland County, New York. These sites were all contaminated by paint sludge and other industrial waste from the former Ford Motor Company plant in Mahwah, NJ.

Panel Chair, Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D. Professor of Environmental Psychology, Ramapo College of NJ. He is author of Contaminated Communities, 2nd Edition (Westview 2004) and lead editor of Cultures of Contamination (Elsevier, 2007). Edelstein has a perspective on cleanup activities that stretches back to research done at Love Canal in the late 1970s. He has studied Superfund communities and testified in administrative hearings and toxic torts, not only about the consequences of living in contaminated communities which have not been addressed, but also about the impacts of cleanup itself.

Walter Mugdan, Director of the Emergency and Remedial Response Division at the Region 2 office, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), located in New York City.  He heads a staff of some 220 employees responsible for the Region’s “Superfund” toxic waste cleanup, emergency response and brownfields programs.  Previously he headed the Region’s Division of Environmental Planning & Protection, where his staff of about 180 scientists, engineers and planners managed the Region’s air, water, hazardous waste and environmental review programs. Prior to that appointment, he served as Deputy Regional Counsel and then Regional Counsel for Region 2, where he headed a staff of 80 attorneys.   He joined EPA in 1975 as a staff attorney, and subsequently served in various supervisory positions in the Office of Regional Counsel, including Chief of the units responsible for Superfund, RCRA, TSCA and the Clean Air Act.  

Jan Barry Crumb, Journalist, Adjunct Professor, Ramapo College. He is the author of A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns (Rutgers 2000). During an award-winning career at The Record of Bergen County, NJ, Jan Barry intensively reported on the Ford contamination issues and their impact on the Ramapough Indians. His work with an investigative team of reporters and editors led EPA to reopen the closed Superfund project in Ringwood. The Record's Website documents this effort.

Chuck Stead, Social Ecologist, Adjunct Professor, Ramapo College and Cornell Cooperative Extension. A native of Hillburn, NY, he is a local historian, activist and place scholar who has worked for years on the Ford contamination. Ramapo students, under his supervision, have helped him identify areas of contamination in New York State that have never been addressed previously. These hazardous waste sites are now the subject of cleanup efforts under the New York State DEC. Mr. Stead is in the process of erecting an education center dedicated to the contamination cleanup efforts in the Ramapo Mountains.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Environmental Writing 2011

From Agent Orange’s insidious grasp out of the past of the war in Vietnam to current health concerns of many residents of Ramapo River communities, to the potential future effects of global climate change, 11 student-reporters at Ramapo College of New Jersey dug into a wide array of ecological issues in the Spring 2011 Environmental Writing class.

Here are some of many insightful passages that summarize topics students chose to research and report in magazine-style final writing projects, all of which are posted on our class website,, along with their other writing assignments throughout the semester.

“The Earth is as a storm. Violently it crashes and trumpets along its trillion year journey. Like a wildfire burning on a California horizon, the Earth surrounds itself in tapestry of both beauty and terror. In essence our planet is a hospitable destroyer. It will deny life as easily as it fosters it. Often times life will simply die off, a casualty of the constant unseen equation of nature. Still, despite the changes our planet has seen, the existence of life has always remained firmly rooted. However, our modern age has threatened life with a new villain: pollutants.”
--From Destroying our Oceans: Impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by John Clancey

“Beekeepers throughout the Garden State know there is something wrong. Some blame mites and pesticides but others are still puzzled as to what exactly is causing colony collapse disorder.

“’I had beehives that were full of bees and produced a great honey crop, and two weeks later were empty,’ says Joe Triemel, Corresponding Secretary at the Essex Co. Beekeepers.

“Why all the buzz? Bees are very critical to agricultural practices.”
--From New Jersey's Buzz on Colony Collapse Disorder by Courtney Leiva

“When being advised to follow a healthy diet, the one food that is indisputably on the top of the list is fish. Its Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals keep our heart pumping and our blood pressure low. It is an easy food to cook, requiring little preparation and, in most cases, done in less than 30 minutes. It is almost impossible to make a bad dish with fish unless, of course, the fish itself has been contaminated.

“With the recent environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which was formally known to produce quality fish, particularly shellfish, fish lovers now question the safety of the fish coming from the Gulf. Do we believe the government agencies that maintain the fish from the Gulf is safe or do we stop buying, adding to the sorry economic state of the Gulf fishermen’s woes, who are just recovering from Hurricane Katrina?”
--From Is Eating Fish as Healthy as It Used to Be? by Virginia DiBianca

“Climate change, or global warming as it is often referred to, has been a hot button issue in recent years. It has dominated the environmental arena, and has even played a role in the political spectrum, as Democrats and Republicans hold very different ideas about the phenomenon. There is a lot of conflicting information about this so-called global warming and the process of weeding through all of it to separate fact from fiction can seem overwhelming. The truth of the matter is, depending upon who you ask, you will likely get a very different interpretation of climate change, its causes, its effects, and what it ultimately means for you and me. …

“Climate change, or global warming, is certainly a very complex issue with a myriad of facts, data, and evidence from a host of different organizations to take into account. But these are the bare-bone facts of the situation. There is evidence to support hundreds of thousands of years of constantly changing climate situations on our planet. But there is also hard proof that humans have, if nothing else, sped the process up a significant amount. It is really up to each citizen of the planet Earth to make their own decision about climate change and make their day-to-day choices accordingly.”
--From Climate Change: A Complex Issue with Clashing Points of View by Lindsey de Stefan

“Jeff Genser, a Suffern native, pleaded to the council about flood issues. He stated, ‘You're proposing to eliminate 100 acres of flood plain, and turn it from a pervious area to an impervious. And that is unacceptable, in my opinion.’ He went on to propose his own idea for what could be built on the flood plain next to the Ramapo River, a Vertical Farm. ‘A building could be constructed that could supply food to half of Bergen County...use all the water it comes into [from the river], over and over again, and have no pollution and environmental impact.’ The idea seemed to stir no interest by the council.

“Many individuals mentioned how the mall would impact the surrounding community. Some were frustrated over the idea of Stag Hill residents being stranded in an emergency situation, being that the only access road to their community would become a constant point of traffic and congestion. Retired resident Ron Whalberg asked the council, ‘At what point do we stop endangering future generations?’”
--From A Changed Mahwah by Graig Mihok

“It is a race against time for a fading era of American heroes who served their country and feel they were poisoned by their government. It is a race against time for the Vietnamese people suffering from health conditions and birth defects. The U.S. government is left with a choice. It can accept responsibility and dedicate itself to all who suffered from the Agent Orange spraying campaigns, or it can wait for the end of an era. It can hope for the best that history will forget. The natural environment and the lives it gracefully sustains are in serious danger.

“For Agent Orange investigator Fred Wilcox, justice is yet to be done. ‘The government can start by saying sorry,’ he said.”
--From War After the War: The Environmental Assault of Agent Orange by Dan Savino

“Consumers seem to be paying attention to what they eat more and more. It is too soon to prove whether GM seeds, crops and foods will hurt or help us, but staying informed and questioning claims for will help to insure our safety. Big corporations own the rights to a very crucial part of the food chain. Urging others to ask questions, voice opinions and challenge tests is incredibly important. Food and its nutrients are what help us survive. As consumers and as humans we have the right to take control over the products we use daily.”
--From Genetically Modified Food: What Does it Mean for You and Your Kitchen? by Lorraine Metz

“Some say it’s just a coincidence; that it would take years, if not decades, for us to see any change in prices if we started drilling.  Experts say that the process of actually obtaining the oil, refining it, dispersing it, and using it takes an extreme amount of time and money, so that we wouldn’t see any relief in the near future.  The Energy Information Association found that increased drilling would have a very small, if any, impact before 2030.  They also found that even once the oil starts flowing, it would only bring in about 0.2 million barrels per day.

“Others argue that just by lifting a ban on drilling, it would influence the market to lower prices.  This is what seemingly happened between 2008 and 2010 with President Bush’s decision.  However, other economists argue that the oil industry is part of a global market and since the United States would only be contributing less than one million barrels per day, it wouldn’t do much for the prices.  How would one explain what happened after Bush’s decision?  The theory of supply and demand seems pretty fitting, which would directly benefit us in this situation.”
--From To Drill or Not to Drill? Offshore Oil Drilling and How it Can Affect You by Brittany Shann

“’Many residents have told me they don't trust DuPont or the NJ DEP. They think DuPont is covering up pollution and DEP is rubber stamping inadequate DuPont cleanup plans,’ says Bill Wolfe, former planner and policy analyst for the state Department of Environmental Protection and former policy director of Sierra Club's New Jersey Chapter.

“’They are frustrated by the slow pace of cleanup, angry for not being told about vapor intrusion, and disgusted by repeated failures by local and state officials to provide full information and allow them to have a meaningful role in cleanup decisions that affect their lives, their family’s health, and their property value,’ he says.”
--From DuPont: Pompton Lakes Site Still a Source of Conflict After 25-Year Clean Up by Deanna Dunsmuir

“Some fluctuations in the Earth's temperature are inevitable regardless of human activity, but centuries of rising temperatures and seas lie ahead if the release of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation continues unabated, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for alerting the world to warming's risks.

“Over the next decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to regulate sources of greenhouse gases, imposing efficiency and emissions requirements. Until the UNFCCC starts taking action on a global scale, it seems that countering global warming and climate change is up to the people’s smaller actions and lifestyle changes. Maybe then those with the greater power will see that we are prepared for much bigger, even drastic changes.”
--From Global Warming: Small Steps Towards Conquering a Big Threat by Jessica Vasquez

“A tract of twenty-two acres of forest named after the former Governor of New Jersey, George Brinton McClellan, was purchased a few years ago by Seton Hall Prep School of West Orange, New Jersey. The school’s plan’s to clear the old growth forest rippled through the community and neighboring towns and has caused many concerns. For two years, town residents and students attended zoning board hearings to voice their opinion on the proposed clear cutting. …

“The Mallangas, both active members of the Sierra Club, also brought in Bruce Kershner. Kershner is a field ecologist who is also a national authority on old growth forests and took a survey of the 22 acres of trees. He identified the trees and expressed the historical and biological value of the forest. Board members attacked his testimony claiming that the use of the term ‘old growth forest’ can not be used if he cannot tell the exact age of the trees. They repeatedly interrupted him during his testimony to ask him for credentials and if he had a background in studying and observing old growth forests. Kershner has studied old growth forests for over 30 years all over the country, but that did not seem like a sufficient enough background for the zoning board members.”
--From Seton Hall Prep Clear Cuts Our Future by Amanda Nesheiwat