There is a lot going on in the world. We just witnessed the second impeachment trial of the previous president of the USA. The military has overthrown a democratically elected government in Myanmar. The pandemic continues to afflict millions of people around the world, and so many in the USA. The vaccines promise an end to that nightmare. So, we can be easy on ourselves if we didn’t know about what is happening to our sisters and brothers who live in South Camden, NJ. They are under assault. To be precise, their lungs are under assault!
Two weeks ago a car crushing plant, EMR, located right next to a residential neighborhood, experienced a horrendous fire that started in a mountain of debris from their operations. It was a Friday, during the winter, and the smoke from the fire choked the air throughout the neighborhood. Sacred Heart elementary school is a few blocks away. The children had to be sent home; they could not breathe. Fire trucks responded from three towns and a temporary shelter was established at an elementary school several neighborhoods away. This shelter was for Waterfront South residents who could not stay, that is, who could not breathe. Some do not have cars. Some who did drove away for the entire day, coming back Saturday morning, to find that the stench remains, on everything! How can such a thing happen in a residential neighborhood? Would such a thing happen in Cherry Hill? Moorestown? Voorhees? People had to leave their homes, if they could, because this fire spewed toxins into the air that would threaten the health of our brothers and sisters. EMR says it was an accident, and they happen every so often. What they don’t talk about is that their normal operations spew particulates into the air that our children breathe. Is it better than it once was? Who knows? There hasn’t been a new air toxins study for over a decade, and in that time EMR has expanded its operations with new machinery. There is no monitoring of air-born particulates from their open air operations. Their only emissions-control is spraying down the pile with water to keep the dust from escaping, but we suspect this is not a priority for daily operations. Yet the threat doesn’t stop there.
The local Gypsum plant in our neighborhood has for years spewed toxins into the air, air breathed by the children and adults trying to live their lives, just like anyone else in this country. Now Gypsum wants to increase its emissions by 300%! They have requested permission to do so from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. There is always a period for open comment from the public, but is there anyone listening to the people who have to breathe what they emit? Again, would such a thing be possible in Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Voorhees, Mt. Laurel? Gypsum and EMR are in South Camden? They emit dangerous toxins into the air. Current environmental law asks only that they emit under a threshold determined by law. But the law imagines a polluting entity on its own. THE LAW DOES NOT ACCOUNT FOR MULTIPLE POLLUTERS IN THE SAME NEIGHBORHOOD!!! So, yes, EMR and Gypsum are likely emitting at permissible levels, but what if you put them together? Who is paying attention to that? Who suffers from the multiple impacts of multiple polluters? Our brothers and sisters in South Camden, most of who are black and brown and low-income. Is that a surprise? Why don’t they do something about it? They have, and that brings us to our third, and ongoing, threat.
Covanta is the trash to steam incinerator the takes the trash from most of Camden County and burns it, creating steam which creates electricity. Seems sustainable, no? We need to dispose of the trash. But burning the trash emits toxins of various kinds, all variably lethal, and all permeating the air that our brothers and sisters in South Camden and Gloucester City are breathing. Kudos to Cherry Hill which recently ended its contract with Covanta! But Covanta is still going strong, the emissions to pollute. But aren’t they within their code limits? Perhaps they are. It seems a third party, with NJDEP supervision, monitors the emissions annually. Annually? Even if we give Covanta the benefit of the doubt on meeting their permit, the real problem here is that the permitted levels for toxic emissions are far above what South Camden needs for healthy air? Would such levels be acceptable in Cherry Hill? Voorhees? Haddonfield?
Covanta, almost 6 months ago now, committed in a community meeting to put in what is called a “bag house.” This contraption, used in a similar Covanta facility is northern New Jersey, could capture up to 96% of the cadmium and lead, but it would still permit the emission of Nitrous Oxide. These are all DANGEROUS to human health! The community greeted the promise with some skepticism but also hope since almost eliminating the lead and cadmium is a big deal. However, they are now dragging their feet, saying they have to delay another 6 months. You see, to put a bag house in is expensive, and if they can’t see their way to having it paid for then it doesn’t make any business sense for them to do it. Notice, business sense is paramount, and understandably because they are a business. But this is a business which, by normal operations, emits powerful toxins into the air of a residential neighborhood. They, by their normal operations, create greater risk to the health of their neighbors than would be the case if there were a bag house set up.
These are three of the threats to the health of the people of South Camden. There are more! This neighborhood holds a disproportionate number of facilities that no one wants in THEIR neighborhoods but which they need to have the lifestyles they want. They burn trash in our neighborhood. They crush cars in our neighborhood, and cement. They treat the contents of our toilets in this neighborhood. We have industries that work with toxins that make possible all the various accoutrements of the life that we so enjoy! At what cost? It is a cost that is externalized in the air that people breathe, the soil they grow their plants in and the water they drink. Who is this “they”!!!!? Whenever we throw something “away” or “flush it away” we ought to remember that the “away” that receives what we throw or flush is some human being’s “here.” Someone who is raising their children, or someone who just wants to play in the park, or someone who wants to live the good life.
It is a shame that we live in a country that for generations has systematically located the most harmful aspects of our contemporary lifestyle in communities that already are burdened by poverty and the impacts of racism and poor health outcomes.
We must do better! We must stand with our brothers and sisters as they demand the clean air, clean water and clean soil that so many of their fellow citizens take for granted.
If you want to be part of the solution, be in touch with us. It is time to stand up!
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
Chair, Board of Trustees