“Clean Our Water, Wash Out Wilda”: Contaminated Tap Water, 2019 Perth Amboy Grassroots Activism, and the Lack of Governmental Response”
by Victoria Nguyen
My site is the city of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. It is rather general because it is not clear whether the contaminated tap water is present in only specific neighborhoods or impacts the entire city altogether. Although Perth Amboy has grappled with issues of contaminants in the drinking water since the 1970s, this project will focus on the year of 2019. This is when former Mayor Wilda Diaz’s administration circulated notices informing residents that an overabundance of TTHMs were found in the water and also when local community activists were disheartened by the local officials and took action to protest for clean water and a more receptive government. Within my actual research, I will focus upon the actions of frontline activist Sharon Hubberman as she worked to petition her local government to listen to her environmental concerns. There will be other mentions of other actors, such as Nora Abreu and Isaac Scafe, who are peers of mine and reside in Perth Amboy. It is also important to note that Perth Amboy has an overwhelmingly large population of Hispanic and Latino residents, linguistically isolated residents, and those from a low-income economic background.
Seeing Nora’s water filter completely shattered my initial expectations. When the Perth Amboy, NJ resident had agreed to show me the filtration system her family used as well as to discuss her everyday experiences living in complete suspicion of her town’s tap water, I had the naïve thought that I was going to see two or three Brita water filters lying on top of her kitchen countertop. At most. What greeted me instead was a Whirlpool WHEMB40 Under Sink Water Purifier, a seemingly entire filtration system, that was connected underneath the kitchen faucet and slightly hummed as it worked to provide Nora’s family some solace. Nora casually flips on the faucet and we watch the water run together in silence.[i] The tap water looks like any typical tap water out there—but that assessment would only be held by those who lived outside of Perth Amboy. The residents had their own beliefs regarding the water quality, including Nora. “We tried petitioning the former mayor [Wilda Diaz] on reforming many issues,” Nora explains of the local politics in her town. “But nothing has been done. We couldn’t even trust her to fix the potholes.”[ii]
The Whirlpool water filter and Nora’s suspicions of her tap water and the previous local government are symbolic of the environmental issue that could potentially continue impacting the Perth Amboy community. As recently as 2019, Mayor Wilda Diaz’s administration circulated notices to inform the residents that there was a heightened presence of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) contaminants in the tap water.[iii] Although the administration had claimed that the issue has been resolved since, Nora and other residents have been suspicious of the water quality prior to 2019 and even after. When asked if she would ever consider stop using her water filter, Nora does not even hesitate to say no.[iv] These negative sentiments that Nora houses towards the water quality and her local government mirror the same ones that would galvanize community activists to organize and demand cleaner water and government transparency in 2019. The Runyon Watershed, located in Old Bridge, NJ, has been providing Perth Amboy drinking water for decades; yet there have been reported issues concerning contamination since the 1970s. Notably in 1981, the Madison Industries and Control Pollution Services (CPS) located nearby the Runyon Watershed was even charged with contaminating a pond belonging to the Watershed.[v]
It is unclear whether Nora is cognizant of her town’s environmental history of contaminated tap water, but her skepticism of her town’s tap water quality symbolically represents the sentiments of a city that has suffered for too long. However, for a town that has seen its fair share of contaminated tap water, it has not been too sympathetic towards modern local grassroots activists who are concerned with this generation’s water issues.
In response to the 2019 notices regarding the heightened TTHM presence in the city’s tap water, local community activists such as Sharon Hubberman felt compelled to advocate for cleaner water and petitioned the local authorities to enact meaningful change to address the environmental issue. Hubberman’s advocacy efforts were also cognizant of the background of her fellow residents—she took account of the overwhelming Hispanic and Latino populations that were often reluctant to speak against the government and motivated herself to challenge the city government to be more proactive and transparent. It is worth noting the demographics of Perth Amboy as it could potentially contribute to the longstanding environmental issue of water and a passive government reluctant to listen to the concerns of Sharon Hubberman. Out of the approximate population of 52,000 residents, a considerable 78% claimed Hispanic and/or Latino identity and about 19% of residents live in poverty.[vi] While the Perth Amboy government has publicized its plans and progress in regard to sustainability initiatives, there are still disheartened residents such as Hubberman who feel that their concerns have not been received or validated by the town officials.
Are Perth Amboy residents being ignored due to their racial and economic background? The lack of governmental results in response to Hubberman’s 2019 grassroots efforts to demand cleaner water rings loud. Despite the fact that Perth Amboy residents rallied behind key grassroots organizers and vocalized their concerns and suspicions of the tap water quality, their disadvantages such as being minority and low-income could have prevented their success of motivating the local authority to take environmental action.
This paper will briefly describe the industrial past and demographics that serve as the backdrop to the city of Perth Amboy. It will then transition to the tap water issues that plagued the city in decades past before elaborating upon the passionate 2019 grassroots activism that failed to inspire governmental action to assure residents of water safety. Lastly, the paper will examine how the local government, in contrast, took proactive measures to fix the sewer system following repudiation from the federal government in order to examine whether the Perth Amboy government is too passive in protecting its disadvantaged constituents from compromised tap water exposure.
Perth Amboy’s Industrial Past and Demographics
Historically, Perth Amboy, New Jersey is known for its industrial contributions during the 19th and 20th century industrialization. Corporate giants such as Raritan Steel, Chevron Oil, and Hess Oil utilized the Raritan Bay in their process of transporting goods.[vii] Other factories would be built alongside the Bay, including the International Smelting & Refining Company and the Gerdau Ameristeel Steel Melting Company.[viii] As these industrial factories continued to manufacture goods, they began to rely on more Puerto Ricans for labor during the 1950s, hence the advent of Hispanic population into Perth Amboy and the consequential changes in cultural and social landscapes of the city.[ix]
In terms of environmental issues that detriment Perth Amboy in the modern day, there are plenty that exist. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, for example, Perth Amboy ranks in the federal 91st percentile for superfund proximity, the 84th percentile for hazardous waste proximity, and the 93rd percentile for wastewater discharge.[x] Within the same Screening and Mapping Tool, it also reveals additional demographic data that could provide some context into the environmental issues that are apparent in Perth Amboy. For example, only 36% of the city population reported attaining a high school degree as the highest educational attainment.[xi] In addition, 71% of the city population reportedly rent their homes.[xii] Thus, by taking account of the demographic data provided by both the Census Bureau and the EPA, Perth Amboy is a city that has a considerable minority population with disadvantages such as limited educational backgrounds, low-income, and lack of home ownership.
Despite the fact that this research is focused upon tap water issues, it is significant to make the connection between the advent of minority populations, the remnants of a city’s industrial past, and the environmental hazards (tap water being one) that current Perth Amboy residents continue to grapple with.
Tap Water Issues in Perth Amboy
As of 2019, Perth Amboy had heightened presence of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) and 1-4 Dioxane in the tap water, as disclosed by the Perth Amboy Utility Service Affiliates, the company responsible for sourcing the water to the city.[xiii] TTHM is a by-product of drinking water disinfection, whereas 1-4 Dioxane is a solvent involved in the manufacture of products that range from shampoo to auto coolants.[xiv] However, the long-term effects of TTHM exposure is concerning, due to the fact that enhanced exposure can lead to health issues of the liver, kidneys, and even increased chances of getting cancer.[xv]
The cause of elevated concentrations of TTHM and 1-4 Dioxane have been subjected to debate. City officials, such as those in the Perth Amboy Utility Service Affiliates, have refuted that contamination of the tap water to be legitimate and instead, characterized the TTHM exceedance as natural results that arise during water treatment processes.[xvi] On the other side, community activists such as Sharon Hubberman staunchly believe that the elevated concentrations did constitute as contamination of her city’s tap water and look towards the superfund site Madison Industries and Control Pollution Services (CPS) that is located near the Runyon Watershed, which sources Perth Amboy’s tap water.
As briefly mentioned before, Perth Amboy does in fact have a history of contaminated drinking water that unfortunately spans from the 1970s to today. In 1973, Perth Amboy had to close 25 of its wells since they were found to be contaminated with chemicals including lead.[xvii] Next, in 1980, a Goldleaf Transport Inc. employee James Finch was charged with illegally dumping PCBs (chemical contaminant) into a Perth Amboy water reservoir.[xviii] The extremity of such problems arguably occurred in 1981, when Madison Industries and Control Pollution Services (CPS) were charged with contaminating a pond that was part of the Runyon Watershed, the source of drinking water to Perth Amboy. CPS was ordered to pay a hefty fine of approximately $5.5 million to restore a polluted pond that served as a drinking water source for Perth Amboy.[xix]
Although local Perth Amboy activists were vocal in advocating for better water quality, they were compelled to initiate a recall effort of Mayor Wilda Diaz as a result of their government’s disregard for their concerns and demands for cleaner tap water and government transparency. On February 21, 2019, Utility Service Affiliates (Perth Amboy Inc.) of the Middlesex Water Company sent notices informing that a couple of its designated sampling locations had an exceedance of TTHM levels in the water.[xx]
To Sharon Hubberman, receiving this notice was extremely concerning to herself and to those who shared a priority of upholding human health.[xxi] It morphed into a more dreadful concern when a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a public forum on May 22, 2019 to inform Perth Amboy residents that three of their wells were not only contaminated with TTHMs, but also with 1-4 Dioxane.[xxii] 1-4 Dioxane is categorized as a synthetic industrial chemical and likely human carcinogen that has been found at groundwater sites.[xxiii] Considering how the Runyon Watershed, Perth Amboy’s source for drinking water, is located so closely to the contaminated CPS/Madison Superfund site, residents such as
Hubberman were justifiably worried. This public forum prompted Hubberman to research further into the water quality sourced to her community and would even contribute to her later leading the recall effort of Mayor Wilda Diaz as an attempt to demand government accountability. “Listening to this news at our last council meeting was not only disconcerting,” Hubberman later states. “but it troubles me deeply that our residents have been exposed to such dangerous toxins in our drinking water. Clean water is a fundamental right, and we must safeguard it and be good stewards of it, because without it, we cannot have life.”[xxiv]
On June 20, 2019, another notice was distributed to Perth Amboy residents that reported another violation of acceptable TTHM levels again.[xxv] However, less than a month later, the city insisted that the water was safe to consume.[xxvi] These seemingly contradictory narratives were not assuring to local residents and only motivated Hubberman to stay invested in her advocacy.
Although there are some described events in which the timeline is not clear, Hubberman discussed the dissatisfying interactions she experienced with local government officials that motivated her to keep leading the grassroots demand for cleaner water and (clearer) government transparency. According to her account, she and her fellow activists had reached out to N.J. Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez with their own curated 100-page report detailing the tap water quality, their own personal findings and concerns of their health, but to no avail.[xxvii] Hubberman also unsuccessfully attempted to contact the office of U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr.[xxviii] As for the activists’ own local officials in the parameters of their own city, they were untrusting of Mayor Diaz.
“Someone has to watch out for us,” states Former Perth Amboy Board of Education candidate and fellow activist Maria Rodriguez. “A lot of our residents’ concerns have been ignored by Mayor Wilda Diaz, and any issue regarding our water is a serious matter.”[xxix]
Consequently, come June 2019, Hubberman and her fellow activists sought to amplify their demands for change and better environmental protection. On June 5, 2019, Hubberman, Maria Rodriguez, and Former 19th Legislative District Assembly candidate Jesus Varela officially submitted a recall effort of Mayor Diaz.[xxx] On the same day, the Facebook group “Recall Mayor Wilda Diaz” was also established and contains posts made by Hubberman for her community to circulate. On June 30, 2019, the second Facebook group “Clean Water Perth Amboy Now” was also created by Hubberman. These Facebook groups served as spaces for the activists to disseminate important information regarding governmental outreach, organized events to petition city officials to answer their questions, and even as opportunities for fellow Perth Amboy residents to vocalize their distrust of Mayor Diaz.
The pictures above are screenshots of various posts from both aforementioned Facebook groups that detail the level of activism and distrust towards Mayor Diaz.
“As concerned residents, we initiated a recall of Mayor Wilda Diaz to help ensure the safety of our water, to help restore confidence in the city’s management, and to promote government transparency,” Hubberman defends her decision to initiate the recall effort. “Our residents deserve clean water, and we must put the residents of Perth Amboy first.”[xxxi]
When asked why the recall effort was necessary, Hubberman insists the severity of the environmental problem and a dismissive government requires a strong communal rebuke.[xxxii] Unsurprisingly, the recall effort was what prompted Mayor Diaz to directly respond to these concerned constituents. In response, the Mayor assured that the tap water quality sourced to Perth Amboy residents “meets all state and federal drinking water standards,” and dismissed “claims of residents being exposed to ‘dangerous levels of contaminants’” as “false and completely irresponsible.’”[xxxiii] Even today, during the term of new city Mayor Helmin Caba, such sentiments towards the activists linger within the administrative officials. When Luis Perez-Jimenez, the Director of Operations representing the Perth Amboy Affiliates was contacted for this research, he assured that there was never a contamination in the water and blamed these activists for negatively dramatizing the results of a typical water treatment process.[xxxiv]
Despite all of the hard efforts of Sharon Hubberman and her fellow activists to inform the Perth Amboy community of the compromised tap water quality and to pressure the local government to proactively address the environmental issue, their activism arguably was not received well by city officials. Why the unreceptive governmental response? Although the racial demographics of Perth Amboy residents were not explicitly mentioned in the newspaper articles nor the EPA article that highlighted the 2019 instances of contaminated tap water, that factor of such weight cannot be ruled out.
“We’re mostly a Hispanic population.” Hubberman, on the other hand, brought up the diversity her community is comprised of. “Something should be done…We’ve been neglected for many years.”[xxxv] For a city that has endured so many tap water issues since the 1970s, it seems counterintuitive that the government was dismissive of the grassroots activism and did not take any actions to alleviate residents’ concerns. There is demographic data that alludes to a population that has minorities with limited schooling, linguistic isolation, and rent homes, among other factors. Could the government feel unmoved to not enact any changes for a constituent base that (may) appear to be uninformed and reluctant to demand for better environmental standards?
III. Results of 2019 Grassroots Efforts for Cleaner Water
The failure of the government to respond to Hubberman’s activism efforts to demand for better tap water quality and municipal transparency in 2019 continues to disadvantage its underserved minority residents that are continuously distrustful of their tap water. Although the local activism was implemented with the good faith of advocating for environmental health of a disadvantaged population, it was met with distinct challenges that resulted in the dismissal of present city officials, the lack of media attention, and the continuing distrust city residents feel towards their tap water. However, the city government’s reluctance to respect the issues raised by the activists in search of accountability and clean water is the overarching consequence that made the grassroots efforts “unsuccessful.”
As previously mentioned, these local organizers are known by the administration of the Perth Amboy Utility Service Affiliation for their activism. Director of Operations Luis Perez-Jimenez considered them as figures who had a political agenda different from the agenda they publicly advocated for regarding clean and safe water.[xxxvi] However, in terms of transparency and clarity, the Perth Amboy Utility Service Affiliation has notably not published the 2020 Annual Water Quality report on its website.[xxxvii] Furthermore, it was a challenging process to personally acquire the recent water quality report from Perez-Jimenez himself, as a whole series of phone tag was played between his associates and myself within a span of ten days. This experience propelled me to think of how this challenging ordeal to obtain water quality information could dissuade Perth Amboy residents from knowing the content of the water they are exposed to. For another individual who could have had limited schooling and whose primary language was Spanish, as are many residents that Hubberman advocated on the behalf of, how would they do so? As for another governmental official who is supposedly not receptive to the activists’ claims and demands, the new Mayor Helmin Caba (who defeated Mayor Wilda Diaz in the 2020 mayoral race) apparently shares the same sentiments as Perez-Jimenez.[xxxviii] When Hubberman was asked of her opinion about Mayor Caba and of any prospects of his support towards the activists’ cause, her pessimism of the local authorities did not waver. She attested that Mayor Caba, like his predecessor, was allegedly unreceptive to addressing the tap water concerns.[xxxix]
Another factor that alludes to the objective unsuccess of the 2019 grassroots efforts is the lack of mainstream media coverage of the city’s contaminated water and the grassroots movement in general. Aside from the local papers such as the Amboy Guardian and NJ Today and Hubberman’s Facebook presence, the lack of media attention regarding the 2019 instances of contamination is unjust to Perth Amboy residents to outsiders alike. As a result of this lack of coverage, it dismisses the distrust and dissatisfaction local residents have towards their water quality and renders outsiders ignorant of these everyday struggles with the tap water. Both Hubberman and Perth Amboy resident Nora Abreu expressed gratitude for my research.
“I appreciate your research into this topic,” Nora stated over a Facebook Messenger conversation of ours. “I am more than happy to help provide you with any relevant information for your research.”[xl]
While this shortage of media attention can be interpreted as an indicator of Hubberman’s unsuccessful organizing efforts, it can also serve as a factor that hints at yet another disadvantage these minority Perth Amboy residents grapple with. In this current digital age, having the ability to garner public attention towards social causes often provides organizers with the leverage that they had initially lacked. For example, Newark, New Jersey is a city that also suffers from unsafe drinking water and local activists successfully gained public attention by protesting on social media, and even at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center.[xli] However, the amount of media spotlight on Perth Amboy water issues is nowhere near that on Newark water issues. Thus, this factor of inadequate public attention is a disservice to the 2019 organizing efforts of Hubberman and her fellow activists who sought to petition their city government to respond proactively to their own tap water concerns. It also is a disservice to other Perth Amboy residents who need any resource and leverage they can obtain in order to empower themselves to speak of their struggles and suspicions of the water and to potentially join Hubberman’s cause to petition the local government to perform better.
Lastly, the continuing distrust residents feel towards their drinking water supply alludes to the 2019 activists’ inability to successfully push for the Perth Amboy government to support their cause and address the tap water issue. As mentioned earlier, Perth Amboy resident Nora Abreu still depends on her Whirlpool WHEMB40 Under Sink Water Purifier in order to drink her tap water. Isaac Scafe, a Civil Engineering student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and fellow Perth Amboy resident, depends on external sources such as bottled water to circumvent the tap water.
While Nora and Isaac access their drinking water in different ways, both have expressed their dissatisfaction with the former Mayor Wilda Diaz and her overall leadership.
“I was definitely distrusting of Mayor Diaz,” Isaac stated without a moment’s hesitation. “While living here I haven’t noticed any type of improvements occurring in the town.”[xlii] In the same vein, Nora attested to living in Perth Amboy for 23 years and spoke of how her community has always been suspicious of the city’s tap water quality and frustrated with the Wilda Diaz administration.[xliii] However, while she was aware of the 2019 recall movement, she joined Isaac in not being aware of Sharon Hubberman and the activism that advocated for clean and safe water for Perth Amboy.[xliv]
Unfortunately, the efforts of the local activists to demand clean water and government accountability had not materialized results that aligned with their goals as there is still existent dismissive attitudes from the Perth Amboy government, lack of media attention to highlight the residents’ struggles, and the staunch feelings of suspicion city residents have towards the water. While these results can arguably indicate the shortcomings of the grassroots activism, they too can also hint at the shortcomings of a government who were not receptive towards the concerns of its minority and disadvantaged constituents and did not utilize the opportunity to gain public trust in the environmental issue of tap water.
IV. Contrasting Governmental Actions Towards Sewage Replacement
In stark contrast, the Perth Amboy government has been proactive in protecting its minority residents with the replacement of its sewer system; although this proactive attitude is likely the result of the repudiation it received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2012 for illegal dumping. According to official EPA documents, the city of Perth Amboy was found disseminating “370 million gallons of sewage flow into the Raritan River and Arthur Kill River through Perth Amboy’s combined sewer system each year.”[xlv] This dumping of sewage into the bodies of water occurred during Mayor Wilda Diaz’s administration. Even today, there are high levels of fecal matter in the Raritan Bay, a place where some local residents will take their children to wade in during hot summer days.[xlvi]
Consequently, the city government had to pay $5.4 million to upgrade and repair the old sewer system.[xlvii] In addition to honoring the fine, the city government is also mandated to “conduct annual inspections of all of its combined sewer system control facilities and will develop and implement a combined sewer control overflow pollution prevention plan.”[xlviii] Since June 1, 2020, the Perth Amboy government has been committed to a combination of proposed options including increasing the amount of wastewater directed towards a sewer replacement plant and increasing facility storage capacity.[xlix] Thus, the Perth Amboy’s proactive governmental actions in the aftermath of this widely publicized scandal is drastically different from its (lack of) response to the concerns raised by Sharon Hubberman and the grassroots activists regarding their compromised tap water in 2019. The disparity in governmental responses to each unique water issue in the city is probably because one drew so much public ire and federal intervention whereas the other issue has not had the privilege of attaining media attention to place public pressure onto the government. Thereby, it is interesting to see how one local government can proactively work to mitigate one environmental issue of wastewater distribution but witness that same local government dismiss the grassroots organizers’ demands of wanting safer drinking tap water while there is an apparent lack of media attention and outside public pressure. This instance of the Perth Amboy government paying its dues in illegal wastewater dumping proves that it could protect its disadvantaged minority populations and so it further highlights the wrongs the government has enacted in failing to confront the issue of compromised tap water.
In conclusion, though Perth Amboy witnessed its own residents rally together to demand cleaner water and municipal transparency, their calls went unanswered by a government who felt no sense of accountability to its minority and low-income constituents. Evidently, Perth Amboy is a city that has an unfortunately long history with contaminated tap water; its own residents attest to strong feelings of suspicion towards their drinking water and towards the (former) administration in charge. Furthermore, there is the existent demographics that hint at why the environmental injustice in the city is the way it is. It simply cannot be coincidental for a government to be unreceptive towards a constituent base that comprises of a large Hispanic and low-income population. It also cannot be coincidental that this same government has been taking proactive measures to address its problem of wastewater distribution, a problem that garnered federal intervention roughly ten years ago.
Whereas local residents such as Nora Abreu and Isaac Scafe retain their sentiments of cynicism towards the issues of the compromised tap water, frontline grassroots activist Sharon Hubberman contrastingly retains her determination to continue advocating for her peers who may be too intimidated or not as knowledgeable. She emphasizes that her persistence is derived from her love and admiration for her community.[l]
“There are ongoing issues with the water,” says Hubberman. “The administration needs to stop politicizing our concerns with the water.”[li]
2 Noralie Abreu in discussion with the author, April 1, 2021, recording, Environmental Justice History in America website, https://ejhistory.com/oral-interview-or-video-story-vn/
3 “Notice: New Water Quality Violation Reported for Perth Amboy Drinking Water,” Perth Amboy Now, June 21, 2019, https://perthamboynow.com/notice-new-water-quality-violations-reported-perth-amboy-drinking-water/
4 Noralie Abreu in discussion with the author, April 1, 2021, recording, Environmental Justice History in America website, https://ejhistory.com/oral-interview-or-video-story-vn/
6 “QuickFacts: Perth Amboy City, New Jersey,” U.S. Census Bureau, 2019, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/perthamboycitynewjersey
7 Constantine Janulis. “A Walk Through Perth Amboy’s Industrial Memory” (master’s thesis, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 2017), 10-11, https://search-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/docview/2002565586?pq-origsite=primo
8 Ibid, 13.
9 Encyclopedia of New Jersey (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), pg. 629.
10 “EJScreen ACS Report 2014-2018: Perth Amboy city” (Demographics Indicator Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), 2. https://ejscreen.epa.gov/mapper/demogreportpdf.aspx?report=acs2018
13 “2019 Water Quality Report” (Water Quality Report, Perth Amboy Utility Service Affiliates, 2019), 2.
14 Ibid, 7.
16 Luis Perez-Jimenez, phone call to author, April 10, 2021.
17 Daniel Hayes. “State Tells Perth Amboy to close 25 Fouled Wells.” Star Ledger (Newark), March 10, 1973.
18 Herb Jaffe. “The Toxic Dumping ‘Dragnet’: Task Force Has Charged 55 in 3 ½ Year Probe of Jersey’s Industry.” Star Ledger (Newark), November 2, 1980.
19 James O’Neill. “Two Firms Must Pay for Cleanup of Pond.” Star Ledger (Newark), July 9, 1981.
20 “Notice: New Water Quality Violation Reported for Perth Amboy Drinking Water,” Perth Amboy Now, June 21, 2019, https://perthamboynow.com/notice-new-water-quality-violations-reported-perth-amboy-drinking-water/at Utility Service Affiliates (Perth Amboy) Inc.” (Middlesex Water Company, Perth Amboy, 2019), 2.
22 “Perth Amboy Community Activists Submit Recall Notice of Mayor Wilda Diaz,” Amboy Guardian June 21, 2019, http://www.amboyguardian.com/2019/06/21/community-activists-submit-recall-notice-of-mayor-wilda-diaz/
23 “Technical Fact Sheet- 1-4 Dioxane (Technical Fact Sheet, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017), 1, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ffrro_factsheet_contaminant_14-dioxane_january2014_final.pdf
24 “Perth Amboy Community Activists Submit Recall Notice of Mayor Wilda Diaz,” Amboy Guardian June 21, 2019, http://www.amboyguardian.com/2019/06/21/community-activists-submit-recall-notice-of-mayor-wilda-diaz/
25 “Notice: New Water Quality Violation Reported for Perth Amboy Drinking Water,” Perth Amboy Now, June 21, 2019, https://perthamboynow.com/notice-new-water-quality-violations-reported-perth-amboy-drinking-water/
26 Bob Makin. “Perth Amboy Water Safe to Drink, Restored Well Should Reduce Contamination,” My Central Jersey, July 18, 2019, https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/middlesex-county/2019/07/18/perth-amboy-water-safe-drink-repairs-should-reduce-contamination/1759078001/
29 “Perth Amboy Community Activists Submit Recall Notice of Mayor Wilda Diaz,” Amboy Guardian June 21, 2019, http://www.amboyguardian.com/2019/06/21/community-activists-submit-recall-notice-of-mayor-wilda-diaz/
37 “Water Quality Reports,” accessed May 8, 2021, https://www.middlesexwater.com/water-quality/
41 Josiah Bates. “Several Arrested Outside MTV VMAs in Newark After Protests over Lead in City’s Water,” Time, August 26, 2019, https://time.com/5662239/newark-vmas-lead-water-protests/
43 Noralie Abreu in discussion with the author, April 1, 2021, recording, Environmental Justice History in America website, https://ejhistory.com/oral-interview-or-video-story-vn/
45 “Perth Amboy to Upgrade Sewer System; Agreement Reached with the EPA to Address Violations of the Clean Water Act Affecting the Raritan River and the Arthur Kill (NJ)” (Environmental Protection Agency Documents and Publications, Washington: Federal Information & News Dispatch, LLC, 2012).
46 Carly Baldwin. “High Levels of Fecal Bacteria Found in Lower Raritan River,” Patch, September 18, 2019, https://patch.com/new-jersey/newbrunswick/high-levels-fecal-bacteria-found-lower-raritan-river
49 “Perth Amboy’s Sewer System: What’s At Stake” (Fact Sheet, Sewage Free Streets and Rivers, 2), https://sewagefreenj.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Perth-Amboys-Sewer-System_-Whats-at-Stake.pdf
51 “Minutes: Proceedings of the Council of the City of Perth Amboy: August 12, 2019,” (City Council Meeting Minutes, Perth Amboy municipal website, 2019), 122. https://www.perthamboynj.org/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=17106517
“2019 Water Quality Report.” Water Quality Report, Perth Amboy Utility Service Affiliates, 2019.
Abreu, Noralie. By Victoria Nguyen. Environmental Justice History in America website, April 1, 2021.
Baldwin, Carly. “High Levels of Fecal Bacteria Found in Lower Raritan River.” Patch, September 18, 2019, https://patch.com/new-jersey/newbrunswick/high-levels-fecal-bacteria-found-lower-raritan-river
Bates, Josiah. “Several Arrested Outside MTV VMAs in Newark After Protests over Lead in City’s Water,” Time, August 26, 2019, https://time.com/5662239/newark-vmas-lead-water-protests/
“Community Activists Submit Recall Notice of Mayor Wilda Diaz.” Amboy Guardian, June 21, 2019, http://www.amboyguardian.com/2019/06/21/community-activists-submit-recall-notice-of-mayor-wilda-diaz/
“EJScreen ACS Report 2014-2018: Perth Amboy city.” Demographics Indicator Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Hayes, Daniel. “State Tells Perth Amboy to Close 25 Fouled Wells.” Star Ledger, March 10, 1973, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=EANX-NB&req_dat=CA8579A7DBE34B1999000C4C7CAB7B6F&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Aimage%252Fv2%253A14245EE216D1AED8%2540EANX-NB-16A3C44958E8338C%25402441752-16A31D759F948ECB%25400-16A31D759F948ECB%2540/hlterms%3A%2522Perth%2520Amboy%2520water%2522
Hubberman, Sharon. Facebook group “Clean Water Now Perth Amboy” post, July 19, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/groups/438060420308011
Hubberman, Sharon. Facebook group “Recall Mayor Wilda Diaz” post, July 19, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/Recall-Mayor-Wilda-Diaz-445989582860148
Jaffe, Herb. “The Toxic Dumping ‘Dragnet’: Task Force Has Charged 55 in 3 ½ Year Probe of Jersey’s Industry.” Star Ledger, November 2, 1980, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=EANX-NB&docref=image/v2%3A14245EE216D1AED8%40EANX-NB-16A526D13890D650%402444546-16A51AB589239422%4052-16A51AB589239422%40&hlterms=%22Perth%20Amboy%20water%22&f=basic
Janulis, Constantine. “A Walk through Perth Amboy’s Industrial Memory.” Order No. 10752942, Rutgers The State University of New Jersey – New Brunswick, 2017. https://login.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login?url= ?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/dissertations-theses/walk-through-perth-amboys-industrial-memory/docview/2002565586/se-2?accountid=13626.
Lurie, Maxine N., and Marc. Mappen. Encyclopedia of New Jersey. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2004, 629.
Makin, Bob. “Perth Amboy Water Safe to Drink, Restored Well Should Reduce Contamination.” My Central Jersey, July 18, 2019, https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/middlesex-county/2019/07/18/perth-amboy-water-safe-drink-repairs-should-reduce-contamination/1759078001/
“Minutes: Proceedings of the Council of the City of Perth Amboy: August 12, 2019.” City Council Meeting Minutes, Perth Amboy municipal website, 2019.
“Notice: New Water Quality Violation Reported for Perth Amboy Drinking Water,” Perth Amboy Now, June 21, 2019, https://perthamboynow.com/notice-new-water-quality-violations-reported-perth-amboy-drinking-water/
O’Neill, James. “Two firms must pay for cleanup of pond.” Star Ledger, July 9, 1981, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=EANX-NB&req_dat=CA8579A7DBE34B1999000C4C7CAB7B6F&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Aimage%252Fv2%253A14245EE216D1AED8%2540EANX-NB-16A4CD4C785DECF1%25402444795-16A37BD9465DAEB7%254021-16A37BD9465DAEB7%2540/hlterms%3A%25E2%2580%259CPerth%2520Amboy%2520water%25E2%2580%259D
“Perth Amboy’s Sewer System: What’s At Stake” Fact Sheet, Sewage Free Streets and Rivers, https://sewagefreenj.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Perth-Amboys-Sewer-System_-Whats-at-Stake.pdf
“Perth Amboy to Upgrade Sewer System; Agreement Reached with the EPA to Address Violations of the Clean Water Act Affecting the Raritan River and the Arthur Kill (NJ).” Environmental Protection Agency Documents and Publications. Washington: Federal Information & News Dispatch, LLC, 2012.
“Technical Fact Sheet- 1-4 Dioxane.” Technical Fact Sheet, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2017.
“QuickFacts: Perth Amboy City, New Jersey.” Quick facts report, U.S. Census Bureau Report, 2019.
“Water Quality Reports,” Middlesex Water Company, accessed May 8, 2021, https://www.middlesexwater.com/water-quality/
- “Two Firms Must Pay for Cleanup of Pond”
Online newspaper article from 2019
Link: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info%3Asid/infoweb.newsbank.com&svc_dat=EANX-NB&req_dat=CA8579A7DBE34B1999000C4C7CAB7B6F&rft_val_format=info%3Aofi/fmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=document_id%3Aimage%252Fv2%253A14245EE216D1AED8%2540EANX-NB-16A4CD4C785DECF1%25402444795-16A37BD9465DAEB7%254021-16A37BD9465DAEB7%2540/hlterms%3A%25E2%2580%259CPerth%2520Amboy%2520water%25E2%2580%259D. (may require Newsbank account information in order to access)
This source is important because it provides information that there has been contamination of Perth Amboy drinking water in the past–it is significant that a federal judge ruled that the Madison Industries and Control Pollution Services (located in Old Bridge, NJ) was responsible for such contamination and that the company had to pay for the cost of the decontamination process. This source is also significant because the site of the Madison Industries and Control Pollution Services is now considered a superfund site. There are existent suspicions that Perth Amboy’s current source for drinking water, which is located close to this superfund site, could be the source of contamination in 2019 (although this is not confirmed nor denied). All in all, it is concerning that a source for drinking water is located so close to a superfund site.
2. “Community Activists Submit Recall Notice of Mayor Wilda Diaz”
Online newspaper article from 2019
This source is important because it provides information regarding the community activism that I am looking for. Although this concerns water within the Perth Amboy’s tap system (and not about the Raritan River itself, like in the previous source), it is incredibly important because it expresses the vocal community activists who were concerned about their contaminated drinking water and even petitioned to recall their Mayor (at the time).
3. “Perth Amboy to Upgrade Sewer System; Agreement Reached with the EPA to Address Violations of the Clean Water Act Affecting the Raritan River and the Arthur Kill (NJ)
Document from 2012
This is another source that is relevant to my research efforts. Although this in regard to a faulty sewer system that results in the advent of wastewater straight into the Raritan River, it is significant to learn that that the City of Perth Amboy was held accountable by the federal government; it is the EPA in this case. I wanted to use this event and study the contributing factors as to how Perth Amboy and its system appeared on the radar of the EPA in the first place (if community activism had any role in escalating this issue to the federal government). Also, this sewer system could also be responsible for the presence of the fecal bacteria in the Raritan River.
4. “City of Perth Amboy Minutes: Proceedings of the Council: August 12, 2019”
Was found online on the Perth Amboy’s government website (dated in 2019)
Although there is only minor citation within these minutes that is relevant to my research, I would like to use it anyway. These City Council meeting minutes from August 12, 2019 feature the presence of a community activist who, at the time, was very persistent in advocating for better drinking water for Perth Amboy residents. She was also one of the people who tried to lead recall efforts of former Mayor Wilda Diaz. Within these minutes under the section “Public Portion,” activist Sharon Hubberman demands more government transparency in its handling of the contaminated drinking water. She mentions a specific dollar amount $200 million as she demands to know what “we did with it.” I want to also look into whatever this $200 million is and see if the government was privy to public pressure from community activists to do better and provide clean water.
5. Facebook: “Clean Water Now Perth Amboy”
Group was founded on June 30, 2019 and has 11 members (including myself)
Screenshots of some key posts from activists:
This provides evidence that there was community activism surrounding the contaminated water issue that Perth Amboy residents experienced in 2019. I do want to poke around and later contact the leaders of this Facebook group for potentially an interview. Also, the leader of this group appears to be Sharon Hubberman, who has appeared in the City Council meeting minutes as well as the petition to recall Mayor Diaz.
Primary Source Analysis
The selected source that will undergo analysis here is the online newspaper article, “Community Activists Submit Recall Notice of Mayor Wilda Diaz,” that was published in The Amboy Guardian on June 21, 2019 (although a mentioned press release date was June 5, 2019). It is an article that reports on the dissatisfaction some vocal Perth Amboy residents are expressing upon city notice of “dangerous contaminants in their drinking water” such as 1-4 Dioxane. Three mentioned community activists Sharon Hubberman, Maria Rodriguez, and Jesus Varela claim that clean water is fundamental to livelihood and personally hold Mayor Wilda Diaz responsible. They even submitted their recall notice to the City of Perth Amboy Clerk’s Office. This is a very significant source to my research because not only does it confirm that there was a negative community response to the posed environmental issue of contaminated drinking water, that community response morphed to become a very passionate and persistent force that seeks to hold government officials accountable for endangering the welfare of the people.
The comparison that this article made about Perth Amboy, NJ to Flint, Michigan has an immediate shock effect as Flint is a well-known and heavily documented environmental injustice issue. Thus, to make such a comparison is to equate Perth Amboy’s drinking water issues with that of Flint and its magnitude. The article states, “Similar to a notice sent to Flint, Michigan, residents which faced a water crisis, Perth Amboy residents received a notice that TTHMS are in their drinking water. Further at a presentation conducted by the EPA at the City Hall Council Chambers on May 22, residents were informed that three of the City’s water wells have been contaminated by plumes of 1-4 Dioxane.” In addition to the inclusion of the bold comparison of Perth Amboy and Flint, this article also reveals that there were additional contaminants to the Perth Amboy drinking water than mentioned in the initial notice that residents received. This arguably justifies the shock and horror these three community activists express. It also mentioned the presence and intervention of the EPA, which highlights the magnitude of the Perth Amboy water issue.
An included quote from community activist and Perth Amboy resident Sharon Hubberman also supports the relevance of this primary source. In this article, she was noted to state, “‘Listening to this news at our last council meeting was not only disconcerting, but it troubles me deeply that our residents have been exposed to such dangerous toxins in our drinking water. Clean water is a fundamental right.” This quote is important as it reveals the personal investment Hubberman has in this issue since she does reside in this city. Furthermore, according to the time stamp of this article and the one of the Facebook group Clean Water Now Perth Amboy, Hubberman was very concerned about these discoveries and the city’s response that she proceeded to create that Facebook group and amplify the community activism.
There is also another quote that strengthens the relevancy and implications of this source. As previously noted, there were other named community activists who were invested in recalling Mayor Wilda Diaz. In this article, fellow activist Maria Rodriguez was quoted, “Someone has to watch out for us…There is no transparency regarding our drinking water because the City does not hold monthly public meetings regarding our water.” As one can see, Rodriguez seeks more government transparency regarding this water issue. As her second claim concerning the lack of monthly public meetings has to be further researched, I can say that there was a lack of water discussion in the meeting minutes I had looked at besides the one comment that Hubberman had made.
- Lurie, Maxine N., and Marc Mappen. 2004. Encyclopedia of New Jersey. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=124913&site=ehost-live.
This source is an eBook published by the Rutgers University Press that contains brief but important information about Perth Amboy, NJ.
This source is relevant to my research because it includes a point that is very brief but very relevant, especially in the “background” of my research. In regards to Perth Amboy, the text mentioned that the industrial jobs present in the city garnered an influx of Puerto Rican Americans to Perth Amboy in the 1950s. This influx therefore not only changed the demographics of Perth Amboy but contributes to the overall point that minorities often face the brunt of environmental exploitation (by corporations) and any succeeding environmental hazards that do occur following periods of industrialization. Perth Amboy has many evident environmental hazards, including, but not limited to water.
2. “Perth Amboy’s Sewer System: What’s At Stake.” Fact sheet, http://www.sewagefreenj.org, 2017.
This source is a 2017 “facts sheet” that mentions the varying proposals Perth Amboy is mulling over as it proceeds to replace its old sewer system and pipes. This process follows the notoriously public event in which Perth Amboy was fined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for dumping sewage into the Raritan River.
This source is relevant to my research because it succinctly relays information regarding Perth Amboy’s sewer system and the potential plans that will be implemented in order to improve and replace its old one. This is an important source to utilize as it follows the event in which Perth Amboy was fined by the Environmental Protection Agency. I sought to use this event (and source) to draw a contrast between the government’s response to wastewater system reform versus its (lack of) response to residents’ distrust of tap water quality in 2019. In doing so, I sought to hint that the government will only work to advocate for the environmental health of its disadvantaged minority population when there is federal or outside intervention.
3. Janulis, Constantine. 2017. “A Walk through Perth Amboy’s Industrial Memory”. Thesis (M.L.A.)–Rutgers University, 2017.
This source is a masters dissertation written by a Rutgers-New Brunswick student whose research explores a variety of topics, including the industrial past and the industrial remains of Perth Amboy.
This source is relevant to my research because it discusses other manufacturing giants (Raritan Steel, Chevron Oil, and Hess Oil) that utilized the Raritan Bay in the past at the height of industrialization. Within this dissertation, it was noted that these occupied spaces were polluting its surrounding regions. The author even noted that remnants of the Raritan Copper Works site are preserved and recognized as historical areas while the City of Perth Amboy continues to invest into completing its Master Plan. This Master Plan aims to make its waterfront area more appealing while “increase the quality of life and health of the community.” Perth Amboy’s industrial past is implicitly crucial to the environmental issues it faces today, including that of water quality.
The image above shows two non-Caucasian women enthusiastically holding up signs that protest for cleaner water and to recall (former) Mayor Wilda Diaz. Based on their facial expressions, these women are also part of the local community activism that wants the government to more receptive to their environmental concerns about their tap water. Despite the fact that Perth Amboy has had reported issues of contaminated tap water dating back to the 1970s, there is a lot of documented community activism in 2019, when another water issue was reported during the Mayor Wilda Diaz administration. In this year, the Mayor had informed her constituents that the tap water had heightened levels of TTHMs; later studies into the water revealed existent traces of 1-4 Dioxane as well. This image holds significance as it depicts an organized community effort that believed in the magnitude of the contaminated tap water and sought to hold its local leaders accountable in the environmental issue of contaminated tap water worth petitioning. Within its significance, this image shows three aspects worth noting. For one, the protest signs appear in both English and Spanish, thereby emphasizing the organizers’ efforts to include the linguistically isolated population to the cause. Second, the table and the clipboards hint at how organized this event was in trying to garner enough signatures to recall Mayor Diaz. Lastly, this tabling event occurred in a public park, therefore making it visible and accessible for any passersby to inquire and potentially get involved.
This image was found in the Facebook group, “Recall Mayor Wilda Diaz.” It was posted on this Facebook group by frontline community activist Sharon Hubberman on August 10, 2019. Due to the fact that the picture was posted in the Facebook group, this picture was probably produced to either inform other Perth Amboy residents of this Recall effort or to galvanize them to participate in the Recall effort.
As mentioned before, the protest signs that appear in both English and Spanish are significant in that it communicates how the community activists wanted to garner as much support and acknowledgment from the Hispanic-dominated city of Perth Amboy. As one can see, there are four signs visibly protesting for clean water and the attempted recalling of Mayor Diaz. On the left hand side, the woman is holding a sign written in Spanish that translates to, “We want clean water; no more Wilda.” Therefore, this tabling event attempted to broaden its outreach efforts to outsiders who were originally not part of the community activists with these colorful signs written in both English and Spanish for all to read. Not only did the community activists evidently try to inform fellow Perth Amboy residents of the causes in which they are petitioning for, they also tried to recruit others into potentially joining this organized effort.
Aside from having protest signs written in both Spanish and English in order to appeal to the Hispanic population of Perth Amboy, the pictured table and the clipboards are also factors worth noting in the overall significance of the image shown above. The fact that the grassroots organizers had equipment set up and prepared to educate and potentially galvanize more residents to join their cause for cleaner water and government accountability emphasizes the magnitude of the water issue (to the community activists). It is one thing for these organizers to have created a tabling event ready to inform other individuals of their petition, but it is another thing to have a table prepared and clipboards presumptively containing the actual Recall petition and space for signatures. Thus, this factor also helps highlight the degree of investment these community organizers had in expressing their environmental concerns of the tap water and how disheartened they were towards the government’s reluctance to take their concerns seriously.
Lastly, the third noteworthy factor is the physical environment that is captured in this image. As it was hinted in previous paragraphs, the community activists sought to publicize their concerns of the contaminated water, their desires to hold the government accountable by recalling Mayor Diaz, and amplifying their petition by garnering petitions and the acknowledgment of passersby. By having this table and colorful protest signs outdoors in an environment that resembles a public park, these activists probably want to broaden their outreach and accessibility to the entire community.
In conclusion, this image is integral to Perth Amboy’s recent tap water issues because it clearly depicts a passionate communal response to the existent environmental issue and to the governmental actions that are deemed dissatisfactory. The presence of dual linguistics (Spanish and English) and the ethnic women sitting at the table serve as physical reminders that the city of Perth Amboy is inhabited by those of minority status and disadvantaged backgrounds. Therefore, Perth Amboy and its recurring issues of contaminated tap water is a sobering example of how environmental injustice frequently imposes detrimental effects upon minorities and can explain the lackluster governmental response to mitigate such issues.
Oral Interview with Noralie Abreu, a Digital Designs graduate at NJIT and a local Perth Amboy resident. She spoke about her firsthand experience and sentiments regarding the tap water quality as well as the local political system of her town.