A despoiled parcel that once played a role in the storied industrial past of New Jersey’s capital city has a future as a place for kids to have fun and stay out of trouble.
But first, it must be rid both of the toxic vestiges of that legacy and of years of abandonment, when it served as a dumping ground for everything from used mattresses to construction debris.
Toward that end, state officials are teaming up with their city counterparts and environmental groups on a cleanup that’s long been sought by residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
“This is part of the department’s environmental justice efforts, generally, and more specifically, our community collaborative initiative efforts to work with communities to identify — and environmental justice neighborhoods, in particular — what are the environmental problems that concern the citizens most,” said Catherine McCabe, commission of the Department of Environmental Protection.
Work on the cleanup started about a week ago. Volunteers have collected more than 150 tons of shingles, construction debris and tires to be removed from the site, which is being viewed as a future skate park.
“We take it down to the facility, which is my facility,” said Frank Coniglio, operations manager of Champion Disposal. “And we put it on a train and send it out to Georgia to recycle.”
It all can’t happen fast enough for Vanessa Murphy, who has lived near the Amtico Square site since 1966.
“Going down there today, it’s worse than I thought it was,” she said.
The property has had various uses going back to 1890, from a livestock facility for the Taylor Pork Roll plant next door, to rubber factories and eventually a warehouse. The building was destroyed in 2013.
Murphy said that’s when the illegal dumping went from bad to worse.
“I was just afraid that someone was going to take a lit cigarette and set the mattresses and the tires on fire,” she said. “That would have been a breathing problem, especially for me.”
Targeting underserved communities
So-called environmental justice efforts are geared toward communities — typically in cities and comprising people of color — that are often overlooked in the enforcement of environmental laws, leaving their residents exposed to toxic substances. Murphy suffers from asthma.
As part of the community collaborative initiative, the DEP sends an expert to work with the community to identify the environmental issues of a particular site. Jamilah Harris is the liaison for Trenton.
“There is a small amount of contamination underneath the slab here and that needs to be addressed,” Harris said. “That’s also the reason why it’s going to be a really good skate park.”
Among the volunteers helping with the cleanup is Jake McNichol, who runs a Trenton nonprofit that uses skateboarding to help at-risk youth set personal goals. He thinks a skate park at the site will mean a lot more to the community than people might realize.
“A lot of the kids, especially the Trenton residents that we see, are teenagers,” he said. “So they’re kids who might otherwise be getting up to no good but instead are spending their Saturdays with us riding skateboards.”
Murphy, too, is part of the volunteer crew working to clean up the 3.5-acre parcel.
“I have health issues, but this is where I live,” she said. “I just wanted to be a part of it.”
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