Newark’s Ironbound Community Loses Against Incinerator
By Arqum Masood
Think of your summer break during childhood, when times were simpler. The excitement of not having to go to school and playing in the park with the sun shining and breathing in the breeze reminiscent of freshly mowed grass. At the time, the biggest concern for most of us was having to turn off cartoons and going to bed on moms’ orders. However, it was not as simple and relaxing for the children living in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. The children of the Ironbound were waking up on their summer break mornings to protest a garbage incinerator that was polluting their neighborhood.
The Ironbound community has long suffered from environmental injustice. The particular environmental injustice this paper goes to analyze is the building of the garbage incinerator in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey; which was first proposed to the Ironbound community in the 1980s. The Ironbound is a small neighborhood approximately four-square miles big located on the east corner of the city of Newark. For many of its residents, it is a home far from home as the majority of its residents are of immigrant descent. Majority of Ironbound residents are immigrants from Brazil, Portugal, and Cape Verde[i]. These people moved here to follow their American dream[ii]. However, for many their American dream might have been tainted by the garbage incinerator.
One might wonder how an incinerator can be bad for a community when it’s supposed to reduce garbage or how the Ironbound community tried to fight the incinerator? or why did the Newark City council vote for the incinerator when the Ironbound community voted no? This paper will answer these questions by digging deep into the history of the Ironbound community and how the incinerator affected the community. The incinerator was proposed and denied in many places but due to the minority status of the Ironbound community, the Essex county and Covanta corporation built the incinerator in the Ironbound and put many lives at risk.
This paper will cover the issues with the incinerator chronologically. I will begin with analyzing how the incinerator came to be proposed in the Ironbound community and the community’s initial fight against the incinerator. To fully understand why the building of the incinerator in the Ironbound was an environmental injustice. It is important to first understand how the incinerator was proposed and what the Ironbound community did to fight the proposed incinerator plans. New Jersey at the time was going through a crisis as the state was struggling to find control of its garbage. So, the state proposed the plans for a garbage incinerator in many neighborhoods. Ironbound with other proposed communities strongly opposed the proposal of the incinerator but lost its battel. From there I will shift my focus on why the Ironbound community lost the fight against the incinerator while other neighborhoods such as Manville and Montclair were able to fight off the proposal. Here to better understand why in Ironbound I will be talking about the status of the Ironbound community. I will use some data from EJ screens to compare and contrast the demographic of Ironbound with the community that fought off the incinerator proposal. This section will go to show that for the Ironbound residents it was because of who they were that they lost the battle against the incinerator. Then right before concluding the paper, I will discuss the impact the garbage incinerator has had on the community of the Ironbound and what the community has done since the incinerator has opened up. The incinerator has brought the community a lot of emotional and physical distress, despite these hardships the community stays close and continues to fight to clean their neighborhood. To get a quick overview of this paper please check out the video link below.
How the community fought the proposal:
The plans for the incinerator first came into the picture in 1970. The state of New Jersey was struggling to find a place for its garbage so the states passed the flow control policy which was flawed from the beginning as instead of controlling the garbage produced it relied on incinerator facilities that would serve the entire region. This puts neighborhoods with minority populations such as the Ironbound at risk of getting stuck with an incinerator. Essex County, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Covanta energy under New Jersey’s flow control policy were able to implement its plans for the incinerator in the Ironbound.[iii]
Plans for a garbage incinerator in the Ironbound were first proposed to the community by Essex County authorities on February 24, 1983. The county from the jump tried to convince the community that it is safe to have a plant that burns garbage. The authorities were wrong for even proposing the plans for the Incinerator because the community was still suffering from past pollution and contaminants. The neighborhood in the past had been a place for many big-name corporations that would come manufacture their goods in the Ironbound and leave after heavily contaminating and polluting the land. Ronson metals and Diamond Shamrock are just one of many corporations guilty of polluting Ironbound. The city authorities knew about the contamination as far back as 1983[iv], as there were articles being published about the pollution in the Ironbound. With these issues known it seems silly that the Essex County authorities tried to convince the Ironbound community to build a garbage incinerator plant.
Despite it seeming like an uphill battle, the Ironbound community would not just stay quiet as it fought the proposal of the plant at every step. Everyone in the community was involved in this fight, the community showed its numbers and diversity, by including children and older residents, members of religious institutions, scientists, laborers, housewives, teachers, and people from all walks of life[v]. Ironbound had formed organizations such as the Ironbound Community Against Toxic Waste or ICATW. ICATW was formed by volunteers, parents, teachers, and everyday residents that had held protests, educational conferences, and community dinners to educate the community of the harms of the garbage incinerator. ICATW also had a lot of support from well-educated scientists and lawyers. While the resident would be protesting, the ICATW lawyers would be in court bringing the community’s concerns to the county. Many scientists such as Barry Commoner, Paul Connett, and more also got involved in this movement as they truly understood the harms of garbage incineration. They highlighted the health issues such as heart and lungs complications and birth defects in neighborhoods with garbage incinerators [vi]. Dr Commoner had played a vital role in shedding light upon the harmful effects of Dioxin which was underestimated during the proposal of the incinerator [vii]. Dr. Connett also helped educate the community about the harms of garbage incinerators by holding workshops all over New Jersey. These scientists and lawyers were all independently involved in the fight against the incinerator. This goes to show the extent of concern these professionals had about garbage incineration, even the community of Ironbound itself lacked the resources to hire scientists and lawyers to fight for them; these professionals were willing to help. The involvement of professionals such as scientists and lawyers with ICATW goes to show how strongly the community opposed the incinerator.
Another group that played a huge role in the fight against the incinerator was the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC). ICC was formed in 1969 by the community of Ironbound due to a lack of childcare in the community. Ironbound Community Corporations main purpose was to support the minority community of the Ironbound. One way it does was by getting involved in the fight against toxins due to the harmful effects it was having on the Ironbound residents. ICC had become the key supporter of groups such as the ICATW. ICC had played a huge role in raising awareness among the community [viii]. It got involved by taking part in protests and organizing forums. ICC also started to publish a newspaper called “Ironbound Voice”. These newspapers were posted on a monthly basis and called for people’s attention, by keeping track of how the community of Ironbound had been fighting the incinerator. These monthly issues had played a huge role in documenting and reporting the fight against the incinerator. Back then the internet was not as we know it today and social media did not exist. So, these newspaper issues were the only way to attract and inform people about the fight against the incinerator. ICC and the Ironbound community was pretty successful at attracting people as their protests consisted of a very diverse group of people. To better understand how deeply the Ironbound community felt about the incinerator it is important to analyze an image from one of the protests.
The image that is being analyzed below is from the march against the incinerator, which was held by the community to protest against the garbage incinerator in 1984. Even though at first one might not think much of this image as it is black and white. However, it shows its deep value once analyzed; it shows how an environmental issue has brought people of different ages, gender, and ethnic backgrounds together to fight for a common goal. The image is evident to how despite coming together in masse and expressing their concerns the minority community still could not stop the county from building the garbage incinerator.
When looking at this image the first thing my eye is drawn to is the big sign in the middle saying along lines “Save your waste” and “say no to garbage deposit.” This also indicates what the community is protesting. After looking at another sign in the background saying “no incinerator” it can clearly be assumed that the people in the image are marching against a garbage incinerator. Another unique thing about this image can be noticed once looked at the foreground of the image. You can notice signs in another language saying “Shapiro no garbage” and “no garbage queremos acida de limpa” the second quote is in Portuguese. A quick google search can tell you that the sign is saying “no-garbage and we want acid clean”, this sign is most likely directed toward the contamination that is present in the Ironbound. The resident also wanted the contamination left from the past to be cleaned. Different languages on the signs shows that protestors were not native English speakers and were linguistically isolated living in Newark.
After looking at each agent of this march another important assumption comes to mind. Even though the image is in black and white, it can be noticed that there is a lot of diversity in the skin tone of the marchers. There are people holding the signs in Portuguese, these people are most likely from nations where Portuguese is the first language. There are also some African Americans in the image by the “save your waste” sign. This is interesting since around 1980 there was not a big presence of African American groups in the Ironbound. These African American individuals are most likely from other areas in Newark. This shows that it was not only the neighborhood of Ironbound that was concerned with the Garbage Incinerator being built. The diversity is also noticed in the age of marchers. If you look at the foreground you can see a lot of kids participating in the march also there are few very old people in the middle ground. This goes to show how everyone from kids to senior citizens in the Ironbound community was involved in the fight against the incinerator. It represents the deep impact the incinerator will have on the community as it will potentially harm everyone. The sheer size of the crowd marching also highlights the community’s involvement. It is so enormous that it is cut out in the background. The Ironbound itself is not a big neighborhood, having a big crowd just goes to show that almost everyone was against the incinerator.
By observing the sides of the image one can notice a lot of cars either parked or moving and a sidewalk with stores and a light pole. This is important as it indicates how dense the Ironbound neighborhood is. It is not just an open uninhabited land where the county is trying to build a plant to burn garbage. It is a highly densely populated area where people live and run small businesses.
Images such as these are great evidence of how a community that is composed of minorities comes together to protect its neighborhood from environmental injustice. The community strongly protested their disapproval of the incinerator. However, despite all their efforts the Essex county ignored them and approved the plant.
How and why was the incinerator approved in the Ironbound
Despite fighting a long battle against the proposal of the incinerator; on April 22nd, 1985 the Ironbound community lost its battle as the Newark City Council voted against the residents, by approving the garbage incinerator. The council voted for approval by a huge margin as there were six members that voted for it, two that voted against and one abstained. The community of Ironbound felt betrayed by its government as the city council refused to meet the independent scientist and experts who were opposed to the incinerator but spent months listening to the corporation that wanted to build the incinerator [ix]. The Essex County council’s actions had also blindsided the community. New Jersey requires each county to develop a Solid Waste Management Plan that says what the county intends to do with the garbage and where it will take the garbage from. This plan is supposed to be available to the citizens of the county to read and study. There is also supposed to be a public hearing held for the people to share their concerns with the county. However, this is not how Essex county handled the situation as they did not hold any public hearings nor share the plans with the community, leaving the people affected by the incinerator completely in dark[x].
This really makes one wonder why Essex county made their decision in such a manner. Why when other communities were able to fight off the incinerator proposal, the Ironbounds’ concerns were ignored? Studies have shown incinerators are built on particular types of communities. According to The New School in New York City, 80% of incinerators in the United States are located in the environmental justice community[xi]. To understand what factors played a role for Ironbound to suffer from this injustice we need to compare the Ironbound community with the city of Manville where the incinerator was also proposed. With the help of EJSCREEN we can better analyze and compare the Ironbound and the city of Manville. We will compare and contrast the demographic data from Ironbound with demographic data of the city Manville. Manville was another town where an incinerator was proposed, but unlike the Ironbound it was able to fight off the proposal. The demographic data give the basis of what type of people live in Ironbound and Manville. The demographic indicators by the EJSCREEN take in count my factors but I chose to focus on factors such as the minority population, low-income population, linguistically isolated, and less than HS education as these relate to my argument the most. There can be a lot of relations made with the demographics of a community and the pollution in a community.
Figure 2 (Ironbound)
Figure 3 (Manville)
The following data from figure 2 shows the demographics of the Ironbound community while figure 3 shows the demographics of the city of Manville. The data is interpreted in State percentiles in which the higher the percentile of a category, it means that there are fewer people that are in worse condition of that category. I chose the state percentiles as they narrow down the scope and help understand why the garbage incinerator being built in the Ironbound and not in places such as Montclair and Manville as once proposed is an act of inequality. Just at a quick glance the data of both neighborhoods tells us a very different story. It can be seen from figure 2 that Ironbound is 71 percentile for minority population which means that the Ironbound community has a larger minority population than 71 percent of New Jersey. While the minority population percentile for Manville is fairly low at 43 percentiles. This makes sense as the Ironbound community is 43 percent Hispanic and 57 percent non-Hispanic (figure 4), the Hispanic population in Manville is extremely low at 19 percent (figure 5). According to the 2010 census report Manville is about 86 percent white. The community of Manville is most likely a community of very few new immigrants. Unlike Manville the 57 percent non-Hispanic majority of the Ironbound is mostly is Brazilian and Portuguese, most of whom are of immigrant descent. This Immigrant descent can also be supported by the linguistically Isolated percentile. Linguistically isolated looks at the people that do not speak English well. This in Ironbound is as high as 98 percentiles, while it is fairly low in Manville around 69 percentiles. According to the demographic indicator, it could also be concluded that the community of Ironbound is also not rich with 86 percentile low-income population and not well educated with 95 percentiles less the HS education and well educated as to the community. While being 61 percentiles for both the low-income population and less than HS education in Manville. This is interesting as median household income of Essex County as a whole is estimated to be around 61,170 and for the populations that are living around the Covanta plant is around 29,731. The closer you get to the Covanta plant the higher the poverty and low-income rate become[xii]. It is important to see these numbers as the Covanta plants burn garbage for the whole Essex county and more. So basically, the Covanta plant was placed so the poor have to deal with the other trash. By breaking down the demographics of the both communities it can be understood that not every neighborhood is the same. A community’s place in society has a huge impact on whether the community faces injustice or not. As Ironbound because of being a minority, less educated and poverty-stricken community was not able to fight the incinerator. However, the majority, rich and well-educated city of Manville was simply allowed to decide as a community whether they wanted a garbage incinerator or not.
As we move to the Environmental Indicators there are some major concerns raised about the pollution levels of Ironbound. The Environmental indicators look at the number of different pollutants in the area. The data on figure 5 is again broken down in-state percentiles. Figure 5 shows numbers that are hair raising the 2 smallest percentiles are both 85 percentiles for PM 2.5 ad Traffic Proximity. PM 2.5 stands for Particulate Matter 2.5mm. These are extremely small dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye particles that are airborne and can be inhaled. Such particles are harmful if inhaled in excess. These particles are also a byproduct of incineration. Traffic Proximity is the count of vehicles per day. This leads to noise and air pollution. Other intriguing figures are the NATA Cancer Risk at 94 percentile and NATA Respiratory HI 95 Percentile. Both these indicators are of air toxicity in the area.
The EJSCREEN is a great tool to analyze the conditions of a community and what could be potential causes that lead to those conditions. By looking at the Ironbound Demographic Indicators it can be noticed why the communities’ protest against the incinerator was rejected. The Ironbound community is a low-income minority population with low education. This means they do not have the money and resources to fight big corporations and the government. Their lack of education and wealth also gives corporations a way to exploit the residents of Ironbound. As many are desperate to make money and will do any job despite its risks. Corporations such as Covanta have taken advantage of this and tried to mask its environmental impact with the jobs it has provided for the community. Every data on the Environment indicators is high percentile. I narrowed it down to PM 2.5, NATA Cancer risk and NATA Respiratory because these data points highlight the air toxicity of the area, to which the Incinerator contributes to a lot. I also chose to use Traffic Proximity because the incinerator itself also brings a lot of traffic with it. The constant moving around of garbage trucks in Ironbound contributes a lot toward the noise and air pollution.
By approving the garbage incinerator, the authorities seemed to ignore the Ironbound’s experience of past environmental oppression. The government that is supposed to be on its people ‘s side had failed to do so in the past and was now looking to allow another polluter to build an incinerator in an already polluted neighborhood. Maybe it is assumed that because of their powerless status of working class, immigrants and race these communities would just allow local government and corporation do whatever they want[xiii] .These bad facilities such as Covanta seem to target the neighborhood of Ironbound. Once again, the neglect by authorities has put the lives of the Ironbound community at risk.
Incinerators Impact on the community since its opening
The Ironbound community has long suffered from pollution and contamination. The building of the garbage incinerator has added extra noise and air pollution which has had detrimental effects on the community. Since the creation of the Covanta plant Ironbound has become a dumping ground for the other counties and states. As of June 27, 1990, the Essex county approved the importing of more garbage to be burned in the Ironbound[xiv]. It had not even been a year since the Covanta plant opened and its operations had already expanded. Now the garbage incinerator is responsible for incineration of 12% of New York City’s garbage, 90% of ports garbage and all of Essex county garbage[xv]. The minorities of Ironbound have been forced to deal with the garbage that doesn’t belong to them. The extra garbage is just adding to more pollution and ash being produced, which has had a harmful impact on the Ironbounds’ residents
Ever since the proposal of the incinerator was brought up, there were doubts about the Covanta company promise or even ability to sufficiently protect the health and safety by using pollution control technology[xvi]. These concerns came true when the plant was opened. Approximately in its first nineteen years of function, the Covanta plant has violated the state operation permit more than 900 hundred times. Just the infrastructure of the plant itself is designed in a way that it harms the community. The plant is built with a shorter smokestack than usual so that it would not interfere with the airplane traffic from Newark Airport. By shortening the smokestack, the pollutants being emitted are not completely dispersed and end up in nearby areas. This means that the Covanta plant has been directly emitting dangerous chemicals such as dioxin, lead, cadmium, mercury, vinyl chloride and formaldehyde into the Ironbound[xvii].
Just these past few years there has been pink smoke being emitted out of the smokestacks of the Covanta plant. Covanta itself has reported that the pink smoke is the result of burning iodine. The ICC is extremely concerned about this colored smoke as it indicates that Covanta may be burning unauthorized medical waste and is exposing the community to hazardous medical waste[xviii]. Covanta’s repeated air emissions violations show how the Incinerator is failing to remove unauthorized and prohibited wastes from the waste streams before burning them and it is seriously harming the community.
Inhaling Iodine has serious adverse health effects. It can lead to lung irritation causing coughing and shortness of breath. High exposure can lead to pulmonary edema which is buildup of fluid in the lungs. Other effects are skin irritation, bronchitis, thyroid gland disturbance[xix]. The other harmful chemicals have also been known to contribute to cancer, asthma, autism and even birth defects. These pollutants have seriously impacted the Ironbound community. A study done by the New Jersey Institute of Technology has taken into account the lives of people harmed by the incinerator pollution in the Ironbound. This study has asked its participants about the emotional and physical distress they face while living in the Ironbound. The results are hair raising teachers have noticed a lot of kids at their school with asthma. Many of whom developed it once they moved to Ironbound. Residents’ loved ones are dying from cancer, even the pets of the community are dying from cancer[xx].
The county’s lack of concern has the community worried as it is getting harder to just get in contact with the city hall to discuss the issues. The incinerator has not only harmed the health of people living outside the Incinerator, but it has also poisoned its workers. The Incinerator was built on the promise that it would provide 500 jobs during construction and 60 jobs once constructed and operating. However, it is providing these jobs at the cost of its workers’ health. Studies done by Cornell University have discovered mutagens, a chemical that alter human cells, in the urine of some workers working in trash burning plants. 90% of mutagens also lead to cancer[xxi]. There also levels of lead and dust that exceed the federal standards found inside the incinerator. This goes to show that the Covanta plant has targeted the Ironbound community due to low income and low education of its residents. Some people don’t have the luxury to find jobs somewhere else that is safer for them.
The excessive traffic caused by the Covanta plant has also contributed to the noise and air pollution. The Ironbound community faces the burning of thousands of diesel garbage trucks coming to Ironbound to dump garbage at the incinerator. Unlike many normal vehicles these trucks tend to idle for a long period of time contributing to noise and air pollution in the area. The burning of fossil fuels in diesel engines is a major source of particulate matter and black carbon, which diminishes air quality once released[xxii].The drivers of these trucks also tend to illegally dump garbage around the neighborhood further polluting the community. Once again instead of protecting its community by cracking down and issuing tickets to these idling trucks that are illegally dumping garbage. The city authorities have a non-existent response to it, which has enraged the community.
The city authorities’ response has left the community frustrated. However, the community continues to fight back. The community with the help of Ironbound Community Corporation continues to hold marches and demonstrations against the Covanta plant. In 2018 dozens of kids and parents marched a mile from their neighborhood to the Covanta plant, while there was snow storm approaching in the area [xxiii]. Even though the minority community of Ironbound has been taken advantage of. The community still stays together and fights to make their community a better place.
In today’s modern world, there are many people that get taken advantage of. It is usually because of the situation they put themselves in such as hanging out with a wrong company. However, sometimes people or a community are taken advantage of for who they are. In this situation, there is an injustice being done to those people or the community. Injustice is not always environmental like in the Ironbound. Injustice has many forms because of religion like religious cleansing against Muslims by the Buddhist generals in Myanmar [xxiv]; it can be social like the separate but equal separation of colored and whites in the 1960s. Injustice could be also sexual and environmental. Even though there are different types of injustices they all have one common characteristic with injustice being done to the Ironbound community, they all seem to be against the minorities of a particular community. Minorities seem to be overpowered by a more powerful group that has more resources and connections. No matter what the injustice is, the only way a community can overcome injustice is by sticking together and facing it directly.
Keywords: Toxics, Race, Energy, Business and Pollution.
[i] Cynthia Mellon, Nabrdalik Maciek, “The Ironbound’s Immigrant ministry”, Newest American. http://newestamericans.com/the-ironbounds-immigrant-ministry/.
[ii]Lawlor Julia, “A Home Away from Home for Immigrants: A neighborhood in Newark that still has 20 Portuguese clubs”, New York Times (New York, NY), Jan 11, 2004.
[iii] Raysa Martinez Kruger, Garbage Governmentalities and Environmental Justice in New Jersey May, 2017: 2.
[iv] Ironbound Voices, “N.J. Gets Right to Know,” Ironbound Community Corporation, Sep 1983:4.
[v] Raysa Martinez Kruger, Garbage Governmentalities and Environmental Justice in New Jersey May, 2017: 312.
[vi] Ironbound Voices, “Scientist Say Stop Garbage Incinerators,” Ironbound Community Corporation, Jan 1986:4.
[vii] Ironbound Voices, “More Bad News About Garbage Incinerator,” Ironbound Community Corporation, Mar 1986:2.
[ix] Ironbound Voices, “City Council Votes Against Ironbound,” Ironbound Community Corporation, Apr 1985:2.
[x] Ironbound Voices, “It’s Off to Court Again!” Ironbound Community Corporation, June 1987:2.
[xi] Jeff Tittel, “Study Shows Incinerators are in 80% of EJ Communities Nationally & NJ,” Insider NJ, May 22, 2019.
[xii] Raysa Martinez Kruger, Garbage Governmentalities and Environmental Justice in New Jersey May, 2017: 338.
[xiii] Raysa Martinez Kruger, Garbage Governmentalities and Environmental Justice in New Jersey May, 2017: 317.
[xiv] Ironbound Voices, “Freeholders Approve Importing More Garbage”, Ironbound Community Corporation, July ,1990: 2.
[xv] Amanda Sachs, “An Environmental Justice Tour Through Newark, NJ,” Tishman Environment and Design Center, Apr 23, 2018.
[xvi] Raysa Martinez Kruger, Garbage Governmentalities and Environmental Justice in New Jersey May, 2017: 316.
[xvii] Brian T. Murray, The Star-Ledger, “Newark residents say garbage incinerator poses health risks”, Nj.com, Dec 05, 2009.
[xviii] Christopher Rodriguez, “Due to Covanta’s Continuous ‘PINK SMOKE’ Air Violations the Ironbound Community Urges NJ AG to Investigate and Take Enforcement”
[xix] Christopher Rodriguez, “Due to Covanta’s Continuous ‘PINK SMOKE’ Air Violations the Ironbound Community Urges NJ AG to Investigate and Take Enforcement”
[xx] Gabriela Dory, Zeyuan Qiu, Christina M. Qui, Mei R. Fu, Caitlin E. Ryan, “A phenomenological understanding of residents’ emotional distress of living in an environmental justice community,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Jan 5, 2017.
[xxi] Ironbound Voices, “Workers at Incinerators Being Poisoned,” Ironbound Community Corporation, Nov ,1989:2.
[xxii] Brianne Flynn, Caitlyn Kennedy, Kristine Rogers, Sara Kerby, Megan Day, Michael Calabrese, Justin Camejo, Katharine Galpin, Victoria Mulligan, Alexander Pelham-Webb, Vi Phan, Eric Doyle, and Ryan Hinrichs, you are what you breath: Analysis of traffic exhaust particulates in the Ironbound community, Drew University, June 14, 2011:1.
[xxiii] Karen Yi, “Our air is not good enough.’ Kids fight plants burning 2.8K tons of trash every day,” Nj.com, Dec 09,2018.