Martin Aaron Incorporated: Camden’s Century-Old Poison Well

By Sterling Clark

Late October in the year 2012, a powerful natural disaster passed through the eastern seaboard of the United States with unrelenting force. The worst impacted state was the state of New Jersey, which suffered dozens of deaths, hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed and billions of dollars in property damage. As a high school student who’s home did not receive the brunt of the damage, the weeks of power outages, the street long lines for gas, and shortages of food and other necessary resources in stores have been carved into my memory. One city that was held back by this uniquely terrible storm was the city of Camden. Once deemed the most dangerous city in the United states and already wearing the scars of racial conflict, Camden had another old and toxic wound open due to the impact of Hurricane Sandy.

 The Martin Aaron Inc. Superfund site, located in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood called Waterfront South, had been flooded due to the storm surge. This spread the toxins within the contaminated soil through the streets of the surrounding neighborhoods and into the homes of residents. This site has been known for its contamination. Mark Skinner, a longtime Waterfront South resident, said “It’s really contaminated, there’s a lot of stuff in the ground, but I don’t know what all it is.”[1] The lot is very old, dating back to the year 1886 and has been used by many different companies for industrial use. The owners of the site have also changed many times in that time period, with Martin Aaron Inc. being the current owners of the site.

Since the hurricane, this site has had the contaminated soil dug out and there are plans to cover the site. Why is it that this site, which the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection were issuing violation to operators as far back as 1971, has not been secured and treated until this decade?[2] My argument is that the changing demographics of the city to a majority-minority population over the past few decades allowed for this pollution to be ignored. Camden is a city that went through de-industrialization due to white citizens leaving as Black and Latino citizens moved in. As a result, the new faces of the city lacked political power to demand the actions necessary to ensure their health.

This site quite an extensive history, so the entire timeline must be covered. The beginning of the site to when it showed up on the radar of several environmental agencies is important for showing the pollution that was already built up while the city had a white majority population. From that point to the site becoming a superfund site in 1998, we understand how that land was used while the black and brown population become more prominent in the city. Finally, going towards the present, we see the many actions taken in regards the Martin Aaron site involving various environmental agencies, operators, and owners of the site as Camden becomes an almost entirely black and Latino city going through immense systematic change pushed by grassroots forces. 

            The Martin Aaron site has been used significantly by industrial forces even before it was owned and named after Martin Aaron Incorporated. The lot was first being used for industrial use in the late nineteenth-century by Kiffery Morroco Manufacturing Company. This company “specialized in the tanning and glazing of hides and leathers”.[3] There was no clear evidence of pollution likely because at this time such concerns were not very significant. However, “As described below in Section VI, water was used in the tanning operations. The Sanbom map identifies the company used coal for its tanning process, electric (generators) and steam heat.”3 Here we have a precedent set for this site more than a century ago. Over time, the type of companies that would operate on or around this site would change and expand into heavy industrial work. From 1919 to 1940, the company that owned the property was Castle Kid Co.  During their period of ownership, Castle Kid Co. saw the construction of a few facilities, including a beam house. “As described below in the Section IV, a beam house is an area of the tannery where lime, arsenic, acids and other chemicals are routinely used.”3 At this time, the city of Camden was developing into an industrial force within the state of New Jersey so the potential for pollution at this site only increased. This is how it’s possible for the pollution to have started long before Martin Aaron Inc. bought the site from Martin Aaron in 1968.

At this time, Camden did not experience certain cultural and demographic changes that would change how the looming pollution could’ve been perceived and handled. At this point, Camden is majority white and growing as and industrial city. Camden was originally filled with rural area up until the it became connected to other major cities through the railroad. “Through the nineteenth century, the most convenient means of commerce between Philadelphia and New York was through Camden City. While New York was directly connected to Camden via the railroad, a deliberate stop in Camden was necessary in order to catch the ferry to Philadelphia.”[4] Going into the twentieth century and World War Two, a healthy middle class was established in the City.  “With the presence of good factory jobs, middle class residents were able to enjoy a good life in Camden, complete with typical amenities like churches, stores, and organizations.”4 With this massive industrial force providing prosperity to many citizens financially and the general lack of knowledge on the effects of pollution, it makes sense why the Martin Aaron site lacked the oversight needed to prevent much of its pollution. However, when Martin Aaron Inc. bought the property, it was in the middle of a period of massive social and cultural change in the United States.

Martin Aaron Inc. is the last owner of the site. It was sold to them in 1968.3 This was during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. The United States’ massive struggle to recognize the rights of African Americans had a profound effect on the concept of de-industrialization. The picture of many cites today is enough to define the concept. As African Americans moved into various cities outside of the South, the residing white population left the cities in favor of the suburbs. “This spatial transformation, moreover, was an explicitly racialized process through which the urban has become identified with racial and ethnic minority populations while the suburbs are places of nature and overwhelmingly white.”[5] What also left with the white is their or without their businesses. The growing minority-majority was held back in many ways, particularly in economics and education. Revitalizing the urban areas would always be an uphill battle. What would also have been an uphill battle was addressing the environmental dangers of sites like the Martin Aaron site. The new minority residents of Waterfront South were likely not aware of the problematic environmental issues, but growing concern over environmental damage did affect white people as well. “For many of New Jersey’s white suburban residents who lived the de-population and racialization of the cities, environmental discourse provides a means to speak simultaneously about the value of natural amenities and the dangers of urbanization. Urbanization, with its implicit racial subtext, is not only a reference to cities but is encoded as a threat to the “natural environment.””5 So its entirely possible that the environmental issues surrounding the city of Camden were combined with the racial intolerance for the minority community moving in. Instead of staying and addressing the problem that would eventually bubble up from the Martin Aaron site, they simply left and passed the responsibility onto the current residents who had far less power to do anything.

All that has been discussed in this was brought to the forefront by a single superstorm eight years ago. Hurricane Sandy washed a toxic and foul reminder into the streets of the Waterfront South neighborhood in Camden NJ. It was both a reminder of the natural and racial scars of this city, many of which are one in the same.

The origins of this site and how it eventually came be owned by Martin Aaron Inc. showed how the site was already building up to be toxic during a time when white people were benefitting from the industrial age the most. The time between Martin Aaron Inc. buying the site to  the first real actions being taken starting in the late 90s displayed the meshing of racial prejudice with genuine environmental concern, leaving a fairly heavy concern with an underprivileged population who did not have the resources to combat that due to deindustrialization. The slow action and communication taken to finally contain and fix this issue is indicative of government agencies that did not consider the needs of the citizens of Waterfront South as top priority.

Superfunds sites are all over the country. Often, they are in neighborhoods with a high population of minorities. The story of the Martin Aaron site is only one in hundreds. We can see with through this story that it its possible to resolve this mass contamination sites. However, it would still be an uphill battle every time because of race. Black and brown citizens are easily neglected by all those who are supposed to serve them. In the future as well, climate change and changes in industry will ensure that these problems to continue. Not only should we solve the problems in front of our communities, we must also make sure those communities are well equipped for the future environmental disasters.


[1] Jason Dearen et al. “AP finds climate change risk for 327 toxic Superfund sites,” Associated Press, December 22, 2017. accessed October 4, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/31765cc6d10244588805ee738edcb36b.

[2] “Martin Aaron, Inc. Camden, NJ Cleanup Activities,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed October 25, 2020, https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.Cleanup&id=0200278#bkground

[3] de maximus, inc. “Summary of Historical Ownership and Uses of the Martin Aaron Superfund Site and Select Nearby Properties”, Environmental Protection Agency, 2016, accessed October 11, 2020, https://semspub.epa.gov/work/02/113258.pdf

[4] Patrick C. Coulter. “A City Invincible? The Transition of Camden, NJ, from Industrial to Postindustrial City.” La Salle University, 2016, accessed October 11, 2020, https://semspub.epa.gov/work/02/113258.pdf

[5] Robert W. Lake. “Dilemmas of Environmental Planning in Post-Urban New Jersey.” Social Science Quarterly 84, no. 4 (2003): 1002-17. accessed October 15, 2020, https://www-jstor-org.libdb.njit.edu:8443/stable/pdf/42955918.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_SYC-5187_SYC-5188%252F5187&refreqid=excelsior%3A6329f9f1f1b51758adf96de788476d0e

Keywords: Martin Aaron, black, pollution, contamination, Camden, Waterfront South, industrial, deindustrialization