Source: US Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory
New Jersey companies released over 6 million pounds of toxic chemicals and other substances into the air, water and land in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Inventory, which is up a half-million pounds over 2017.
The latest data shows the first increase in on-site releases since 2014.
Facilities involved in food, chemical and other manufacturing, as well as metal mining, electric power generation and hazardous waste treatment are required to submit information to the federal government about their chemical releases. EPA then compiles this data into the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) to give officials and the public a glimpse into potentially dangerous chemicals being put into the air, ground and water.
But significant decline overall since 2008
Although higher than in 2017, the total 12.5 million pounds of chemical waste produced by facilities, which includes waste that was shipped for recycling or placed in landfills off site, has declined significantly over the years from the 18.5 million pounds reported in 2008.
“For the most part it’s companies doing a better job analyzing their processes and reducing their emissions,” said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, in explaining the long-term drop.
Hart said companies have reduced their waste by implementing additional treatment systems, scrubbers and cleaning systems, and substituting different materials for their processes. He praised companies for maintaining levels of waste that are legally permitted in New Jersey, and added that the amount of chemical contaminants in water, air and land near facilities is not at levels that pose health risks to the public.
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said that even though companies are operating within state regulations, the amount of pollution emitted into the environment is still alarmingly high.
In addition to federal oversight of facilities, New Jersey has its own pollution prevention tracking system similar to the TRI to monitor toxic chemicals, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Nitrates were most common
The most commonly found chemicals were nitrate compounds, which made up 62% of all chemical releases and totaled 3.7 million pounds — more than half of all on-site releases. Nitrates can be found in fertilizers and permeate drinking water due to runoff from farms, lawns and landfills. Ingesting high levels of nitrates can reduce the blood’s ability to transport oxygen, causing headaches, fatigue and dizziness, according to the state Department of Health.
“Polluters have been emitting less toxic pollution, but you still have 6 million pounds of toxic pollution that’s being emitted into New Jersey’s environment,” O’Malley of Environment New Jersey said. “You still have legacy polluters that are inflicting environmental damage on their immediate ecosystems.”
O’Malley cited DuPont Chambers Works (now called Chemours Chambers Works), a dye and textile manufacturer in Pennsville Township, Salem County as a company that has significantly reduced its chemical wastes. The 2.5 million pounds in waste the facility produced in 2013 fell to 560,000 pounds in 2018.
Still, Chemours Chambers Works remains among the top waste producers in the state, alongside Phillips 66 Bayway Refinery and Cogen Technologies Linden Venture in Linden, Union County; Paulsboro Refining Co. in Paulsboro and Logan Generating Co. in Swedesboro, both in Gloucester County.
“They’re within the permits per se, but it’s a reminder that the permitted amount of pollution that is being discharged into our waterways is still incredibly high,” O’Malley said. “The permits should be forcing industries to increase their pollution control technologies, and too often, our permits are on autopilot, so even though TRI pollution has decreased, there’s a lot more we can be doing at the federal and state level.”
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He said the long-term impacts to public health may create so-called sacrifice zones, or geographic areas that have been permanently impaired by environmental damage. According to Environmental Health Perspectives journal, sacrifice zones usually impact low-income communities and people of color.
Two of the top waste producers are located in Union County, where the U.S. Census reported black residents at 24%, compared to the 15% African American population overall in New Jersey. In that county, 32% of the population identifies as Hispanic, compared to the 21% Latino state population. In Linden alone, 11 companies spewed almost 3 million pounds of 105 chemicals into the air, water and ground.
In Paulsboro, where Paulsboro Refining Co. released more than 1 million pounds of chemical waste, the U.S. Census reported the median household income is $42,000 — nearly half of New Jersey’s median household income of $80,000. In Pennsville Township, home to Chemours Chambers Works, the median household income also rests below the state average, totaling $63,000.
Kim Gaddy, an environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action of New Jersey who advocates for marginalized communities impacted by industrial pollution, said the reason so many polluters are located in lower-income communities is rooted in New Jersey’s industrial history and geography.
“Unfortunately, the industrial past and the history of Newark and a lot of communities that were by the river (was that) industry followed, so in the past it was the industries that were allowed to come here,” Gaddy said. She said communities that had cheap land available and were also in close proximity to highways and waterways drew industrial companies to develop their facilities there.
“(Industrial companies) were able to strategically locate their places in our communities,” she said. “(Affluent communities) were able to fight against it, but unfortunately, the voices of those marginalized communities, even though they fought, they were never victorious in preventing a lot of these facilities from being located in their community, and that was pretty much based on their zip code, the colors of their skin and their social-economic background.”
Gaddy praised Newark as a city that has reduced pollution, due to its Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts Ordinance, which the Newark Municipal Council passed in 2016. The ordinance requires new companies to apply for an environmental permit from DEP. The city’s environmental commission then reviews the application before it is sent to Newark’s planning and zoning boards.
Gaddy said if citizens want to advocate for cleaner air, water and land in their communities, they should discuss issues of environmental injustice with elected officials to help them understand how environmental degradation impacts public health and the quality of life in their community.
“Your environment is everywhere. It’s where you congregate, it’s where you work, it’s where you play, it’s where your children go to school,” Gaddy said. “When you get (elected officials) to make that connection, then you can see changes that will begin to occur in your city.”
— Map and graphics by Colleen O’Dea