Site Description

Preliminary Paper Title

“Clean Our Water, Wash Out Wilda”: Contaminated Tap Water, 2019 Perth Amboy Grassroots Activism, and the Lack of Government Accountability

Author Biography

I am a senior at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I am a double major in History (B.A.) and Law, Technology & Culture (B.A.). I am interested in studying Perth Amboy because I have spent many years driving through the city in order to get to my own home in another town. During my commute, I see the oil refinery for myself and its close proximity to residences and businesses. Although my research topic is not focused on the oil refinery itself, this spurred my curiosity to research the environmental issues that affect Perth Amboy residents overall. Thus, I was able to learn of various contaminated tap water issues that the city has been experiencing for decades. Notably, in 2019, local community activists attempted to motivate the government to respond and protect the residents’ health. I am naturally intrigued to learn of the community response to the water and how the racial and ethnic demographics of the city play a role in the lack of governmental action.

Site Description

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.

Historical Questions

Was the 2019 efforts of local grassroots activists to petition for cleaner water and better government transparency unsuccessful because of their minority status and demographics?

This is an important question that continues to make itself relevant to me considering the long history Perth Amboy has with tap water. The community activists of 2019 were rather passionate and active on social media–at one point, even led a recall effort of Mayor Diaz–and so it is surprising to observe how some local government officials are not aware of the grassroots efforts or even when the officials characterize these activists as “political actors.”

Project Significance

I am curious if the city government would have acted differently in response to the community activism if its concerned constituents were of upper middle class status and were not minorities. Unfortunately, environmental injustice impacts those of vulnerable populations, especially those who are considered racial minorities. This curiosity therefore mirrors the question that was posed in the previous section. Was the local government less receptive to the posed environmental concerns because of the demographics of the people? I am studying the “unsuccessful” 2019 community activism efforts to explore whether the lack of political and economic clout of these Perth Amboy residents contributed to the lack of governmental action and accountability. Such research can potentially highlight how the disadvantages of being poor and minority can result in lackluster governmental and policy advocacy.

Keywords

class, toxics, water, community, business