I decided to seek out scientific data about Toms River and the three mile surrounding area on the Environmental Protection Agency website for two primary reasons: to analyze the proximity of the town to superfund sites as compared to the rest of the United States and New Jersey and to get a better understanding of the town’s demographics. My first goal was primarily established to find out the legitimacy of the towns infamous nickname, “chemical town.” I already discovered in my research that the town developed this unfortunate nickname because it is home to two superfund sites, known as Reich Farms and Ciba-Geigy. However, I had no idea how common it was, in the United States or New Jersey, for one place to be so close to two superfund sites. In short, I wanted to discover just how out of the ordinary Toms River was as compared to the rest of the country and state. My second goal was created to analyze the impact of identity on the Toms River Cancer Cluster. Out of all sources that I have compiled so far, none have attempted to analyze the impact of the Toms River Cancer Cluster on minority populations or the economically disadvantaged as compared to more privileged people living in the town. This led me to wonder if less privileged population were treated differently or affected more heavily by the Toms River Cancer Cluster than others. I eventually came to the conclusion that the first step to research this would be to look up the demographics of the town. In summary, I believe that the scientific data that I have complied will allow me to have a greater understanding of the overall dynamic around the Toms River Cancer Cluster.
Through my research, I discovered that Toms River’s proximity to superfund sites was relatively high compared to the rest of the United States, but surprisingly in line with the rest of New Jersey. The value (which is determined by site count/ kilometer distance) that the EPA site determined for Toms River was .25, compared to .13 average for the rest of the United States. Toms River ultimately ranked in the 89th percentile of towns near superfund sites. This led me to believe that Toms River was rather unique in its proximity to superfund sites. But then I looked at New Jersey’s overall average and discover that it was actually higher than Toms River, at .44. Toms River only ranked in the 56th percentile in New Jersey, suggesting that its proximity to superfund sites was only average when compared to the rest of the state. This led me to wonder why the overall value of proximity to superfund sites was so high in New Jersey (.44) compared to the rest of the United States (.13). Further research led me to discover that New Jersey contained the most superfund sites out of all of the states in the union, with the state containing 113 total sites, despite the state ranking 47th in total area. California contains the second most superfund sites at 97, but it is much larger than New Jersey in terms of area, as it is the 3rd largest state in the country. This suggests that no matter where one lives in the garden state, they will be in relative close proximity to a superfund site. Toms River and its two superfund sites are not an outlier in New Jersey, but actually close to the average. This is all to say that the town’s nickname of “chemical town” may be unfounded, at least when compared to the rest of New Jersey.
The demographic data of Toms River confirmed my suspicions about the lack of diversity of the town. The minority population of the town was only at 19%, which is much smaller than both the state and the country, which are at 44% and 33% respectively. Toms River ranked in the 27th percentile in the state and the 36th in the country in this category. This essentially means that Toms River has a mostly Caucasian population, especially when compared to New Jersey (which is more diverse than the country as a whole) and America. Ultimately, the cancer cluster and the pollution that caused it did not occur in an area with a large minority population. This suggests that the pollution at the two sites was not motivated by any conscious or unconscious racial biases. The low income population in the town was at 23%, which in line with the state average of 24%, but far less than the country’s average of 33%. Toms River’s low income population ranked in the 59th percentile in New Jersey and the 38th percentile in the United States. The number of economically challenged people in Toms River is relatively average in New Jersey, if not slightly above average, but much lower than the rest of the United States. From this data, I can assume that Toms River is a relatively prototypical New Jersey town when it comes to low income population. This means that people of Toms River’s search for justice is no more likely to be hampered by financial instability of low income victims than the average New Jersey Town. Overall, I would say that the town of Toms River has a fairly privileged population.
The environmental and ethnographic data together made me question if there is a racial motivation behind why Toms River is called “chemical town.” As I mentioned in paragraph two, while the town’s proximity to superfund sites is high when compared to the rest of the United States, it is relatively average in its home state of New Jersey. One could make the argument that a number of other places in New Jersey deserve an unfortunate nickname like “chemical town” as much as or even more so than Toms River. But yet Toms River does have this dubious name, despite its proximity to superfund sites being relatively in line with the rest of the state. This suggests that perhaps the increased attention that was placed on the Toms River pollution cases occurred because the town contains a mostly Caucasian population. History has shown that when environmental pollution harms communities of color, it is often ignored, at least until those communities force it into the public view. Whereas when the same happens to Caucasian people, it is often brought to light immediately, due to their extreme privilege. Although the Toms River cancer cluster was undoubtedly a tragedy, perhaps the reason why it got so much attention, at least initially, was because of the privilege of the victims.
The data that I gathered from the Environmental Protection Agency website opened some avenues of research for me and closed others. Through my research, I discover that Toms River is relatively average in its proximity to superfund sites and has a fairly small minority population, at least when compared to the rest of New Jersey. This data caused my research to move away from the idea that the survivors of the Toms River Cancer cluster continued search for justice is and was somehow negatively impacted due to racism. The town and, from what I could tell from my research so far, the survivors are mostly a part of a privileged identity in this regard, which means that their treatment was probably not negatively affected due to their race. However, these numbers made me question why the Toms River cancer cluster and the pollution that preceded it was given so much attention that its story was turned into a Pulitzer Prize winning book and, if rumors are to be believed, eventually a movie by star actor Danny DeVito. Was it due to privilege that they inherently have because of their race? And if the answer to this question is yes, then why has interest in this issue seemingly faded over time despite the victims, and thus their race, staying the same? I do not have an answer to either of these questions yet, but I plan to further examine them through my research as my project progresses over time.
“Environmental Justice Screen.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, ejscreen.epa.gov/mapper/.
“National Priorities List (NPL) Sites – by State.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 2 Apr. 2020, www.epa.gov/superfund/national-priorities-list-npl-sites-state.