Monday, May 14, 2018

An Unconventional Assessment of Social Impacts in a Contaminated Community

By Andrew Herrera

The borough of Pompton Lakes, New Jersey has had to grapple with a contamination problem which first emerged several decades ago. A local weapons and munitions factory known as the Pompton Lakes Works, owned and operated by the DuPont Corporation between 1902 and 1994, released unknown quantities of heavy metals and toxic solvents into unlined lagoons that migrated into the town’s lake and groundwater (O’Neill and Fallon 2018).

The contamination of surface and ground water in Pompton Lakes has impacted residents’ health, especially those living in homes above the toxic groundwater “Plume” of solvents and chemicals which have migrated into their basements as vapors. Residents have been fighting for a complete cleanup of the Lake and the aquifer, as well as a thorough mitigation of the danger posed by vapor intrusion into their basements, often without adequate government support. Therefore, Ramapo College’s own Turtle Island Consulting, created as part of a senior environmental studies class’s capstone course, has been in the process of preparing a comprehensive environmental assessment of the impacts caused by the contamination. As part of that class, I have contributed a unique perspective to impact assessment which is not normally considered: organizational impacts.

Environmental impact statements have developed an almost codified rubric of different impacts that are supposed to be researched before a development can begin. Different environmental assessments may include additional topics particular to their project, but this group of impacts generally applies to most statements. These impacts, or indicators, typically include physical, ecological, and socioeconomic effects such as air quality, biodiversity, and local economy. My indicator, however, looked at organizational impacts, which is not a widely recognized one.

Organizational environmental impacts

Organizational impacts, broadly speaking, include effects on the political and social fabric of a community. It is not covered in guides to environmental impact statements, such as Betty B. Marriott’s Environmental Impact Assessment: A Practical Guide (1997) and Charles Eccleston’s Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Best Professional Practices. In this report, I am going to discuss the methodology of an organizational impact assessment as well as the findings I made regarding the situation in the borough of Pompton Lakes.

Because the organizational indicator is not a formally recognized category of impact, it can be difficult to define its research parameters. It is a broad and inclusive category of issues. An early task for me was to work with the firm’s advisors, Drs. Michael Edelstein and Ashwani Vasishth, to delineate the actual questions I would need to ask as the organizational impact assessor. We ultimately reached a fairly comprehensive list of concerns. That list focused on the behavior of the responsible parties, regulatory agencies, and citizens of Pompton Lakes. It included questions such as: how have DuPont, the EPA, and the NJ DEP communicated with the community on the health risks associated with contamination; how capable, exactly, are citizens’ groups of negotiating for themselves in disputes over cleanups; and what has local government done in response to the contamination? In order to answer these questions and many others, I needed to consult news investigations, technical documents, and residents of Pompton Lakes.

This work was buoyed by a few prominent sources. One was an expose by The Record titled “Toxic Secrets.” That piece, written by James O’Neill and Scott Fallon (2018), is a thorough investigation of the history of contamination in the community, the resultant health effects, and a variety of communiques, letters, and memorandums sent between the DEP, EPA, and DuPont and its spinoff, Chemours. “Toxic Secrets” was so valuable to my work because O’Neill and Fallon used the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to obtain those documents which the agencies had kept stored away from the public. Using FOIA and OPRA can be a lengthy, time-consuming process. O’Neill himself commented that it sometimes took months of asking to see important documents detailing how DuPont frequently delayed the DEP in its inquiries into whether the toxic contaminated groundwater in the borough was migrating as a vapor into peoples’ homes (James O’Neill, personal communication, April 2 2018).

“Toxic Secrets” uncovered previously unknown information on DuPont’s consistent priority of stalling any cleanup of the contaminated area, and it brought information to my attention that I had not even thought to ask. Even if I had, I might not have had the time to obtain the information myself. Between “Toxic Secrets” and its spiritual predecessor, “Toxic Legacy,” which I used when discussing the Ford Motor Company’s contamination of Ringwood, New Jersey, and Ramapo, New York, my work made me realize the importance of an active news media. Without the work of dedicated career journalists, I would not have been able to address nearly as many questions in my assessment.

My findings were also largely dependent on the cooperation of local activists. Individuals such as Lisa Riggiola, founder of Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes and the Pompton Lakes Community Advisory Group, and Jefferson LaSala, board member of Pompton Lakes Residents for Environmental Integrity, provided more information on local politics and debates over how to clean up the polluted Pompton Lake and aquifer than any official documents I had seen. As local leaders of the community response to news about contamination, Riggiola and LaSala possessed reports, technical documents, and firsthand accounts of the politics of remediation in Pompton Lakes, and I could not have found those resources anywhere else. Even though the EPA had a fairly extensive list of documents and community updates pertaining to Pompton Lakes on its website, I truly needed to have personal conversations with involved residents to learn what I needed to learn to write about organizational impacts.

Community impact

Although I began this assessment unsure of exactly what significance my indicator held for the overall state of the community of Pompton Lakes, my findings have taught me how important the “organizational” impacts of any project can be. For one, I have learned that the citizens of Pompton Lakes are severely disadvantaged by a lack of communication and support from the EPA and the DEP. DuPont and its spinoff, Chemours, which is now overseeing the site, have consistently proven to be opposed to open and timely correspondence with the community about their factory’s contamination of the water in Pompton Lakes. 

But the government agencies have not supported the citizens either, meaning that, for a collective of concerned residents with no background in environmental science, it is nearly impossible to analyze and criticize the polluters’ plans for cleaning up the borough’s surface and ground water. When they previously had the funding to hire independent engineers who could do so, these citizen groups were appalled but perhaps not surprised to learn that DuPont and Chemours’s plans have largely failed to effect a satisfactory cleanup of Pompton Lake and the borough’s groundwater. Since the dissolution of a Pompton Lakes citizens advisory group which the EPA had organized in 2012, residents have had no consistent communication with the public agencies that possess the resources and expertise needed to challenge DuPont and Chemours’s stubbornness. While the EPA could possibly better enforce a cleanup if the site was added to the Superfund list, the borough council has actively opposed that measure because it fears the stigma of being a Superfund site would depreciate property values and investment.

This disempowerment of the community extends to other prominent social issues. City dwellers feel they do not have a voice as they are being forced out of their homes due to rising rents and property values. Native American communities continue to see their ancestral lands damaged by extractive industries such as oil and gas, because they cannot rally a popular movement large enough to protect their sacred spaces. And, in the borough of Pompton Lakes, residents fatigued from protesting the contamination of their homes for decades are struggling to advocate for themselves when they lack the money and time to do so.

Organizational impacts should be included in every environmental impact statement. They figure into the most critical aspects of development: social harmony, civic engagement, and honest government. As such, organizational impacts hold larger implications for a community than what is dictated by a typical environmental assessment. They can determine whether the residents even have the proper mechanisms in place to ensure active public participation in determining the fate of their community.

Eccleston, C.H. Environmental impact assessment: A guide to best professional practices. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
LaSala, J. (2018, April 8 & 2018, April 19). Personal communication.
Marriott, B. B. (1997). Environmental impact assessment: A practical guide. New York: McGraw-Hill.
O'Neill, J. M., & Fallon, S. (2018, March 02). Toxic Secrets: Pollution, evasion and fear in North Jersey. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from
Riggiola, L. (2018, March 21). Personal communication.

Andrew Herrera is a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey majoring in environmental studies.

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