Thursday, February 19, 2015

Toxic Legacy: Who Gets Green Lawns and Who Gets Dumped On

By Erik Lipkin

Many people living in New Jersey are aware of the “Toxic Legacy” report, which appeared in the Bergen Record in the mid-to-late 2000s.  They are aware of the story it tells because it happened, for some, right in their own backyards.  The report was a scathing one that blasted the Ford Motor Company for dumping toxic paint sludge in parts of Ringwood, NJ.  That sludge made its way into people’s everyday lives and even and streams surrounding their homes. 

One of the most troubling aspects of the “Toxic Legacy” report isn’t that a major corporation endangered the lives of people by dumping toxic waste; certainly people are cynical enough when it comes to large corporations to not be surprised by that.  What is most troubling is the fact that the paint sludge was dumped in low-income areas where people whose skin color was a few shades darker than that of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford’s was.
The majority of the toxic sludge was dumped in areas inhabited by the Ramapough Mountain Indians.  This shouldn’t comes as a huge shock considering the United States doesn’t exactly have the most pristine record when it comes to treating Native Americans fairly.  First settlers moved the Native Americans off of their own land and onto reservations where crops could not flourish, and now a major company is dumping toxic waste on one of the areas that they call home.  Because many of the Ramapough Mountain Indians do not have a lot of money, moving out of the toxic area is not a viable option.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend when it comes to pollution and low-income areas.
Drive through parts of New Jersey and everything looks beautiful; mature trees, manicured lawns, and babbling brooks dot the landscape.  However, other areas seem to be infested with pollution.  North Caldwell is one of those beautiful towns, filled with upper-middle-class and even wealthier people and very easy on the eyes.  Yet a 20-minute drive down Bloomfield Avenue will take you to Newark, a lower income city with a large population of black and Latino people.  In Newark, mature trees and manicured lawns are not common; what is common are smoke stacks and intrusive industrial buildings.
One might say that the difference between North Caldwell and Newark is simple; one is a suburb while the other is a city.  That is correct and of course a suburban landscape will always look different that a city landscape, but that is not the major difference.  The major difference is money and skin color.  If a company decided to dump toxic sludge in a well-off, white area such as North Caldwell there would be a huge backlash and some people, because they could afford it, might move away.  In Newark, though, many people don’t have the option of moving away, and it always seems like civic leaders are less inclined to listen to the woes of the poor.
“Toxic Legacy” isn’t just about a corporation thinking they are above the law, it goes way beyond that.  The real legacy comes in highlighting the fact that environmental racism is alive and well and unfortunately doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  People should not only be disgusted by the fact that toxic sludge is being dumped, they should also be disgusted by where it is being dumped and the reasons behind choosing to dump in those locations.

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