One Community, Different Planets
A reflection written by Gary Matthews about his experience on an environmental health and justice tour in Newark, NJ.
By Gary Matthews, Green Team Leader at Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, NJ
I was fortunate to have my eyes truly opened the other day on an environmental justice tour of the Ironbound section of Newark. Here is what I learned. The people of Ironbound and the people of Madison (where my wife, Lisa, and I live on a tree-filled street breathing relatively clean air) are together part of one human community, but we might as well be living on different planets.
Ana Baptista, Environmental & Planning Director of the Ironbound Community Corporation and a native of the community, guided our tour bus. Accompanying me from Redeemer were Lisa, Niki Dupont, and Ajorie Henry. We toured the ports of Elizabeth and Newark, which along with the Newark Airport sit adjacent to the Ironbound community. We heard how independent truck drivers must wait in line at the port for up to 5-6 hours at a time (without bathroom facilities) for one ship container each to be delivered for a fee of $200 - and from this income must feed themselves and their families and perform necessary maintenance on their trucks. As a result, these diesel trucks are ill-maintained and dirty, and after they pick up their loads often travel straight through Ironbound on their delivery route - some 7-10,000 truck trips per day through the community.
While diesel and jet fumes engulf the community, residents and other workers engage daily in the community’s primary business, hosting and disposing of waste materials received from the entire New York and New Jersey metro area. Huge piles of scrap metal, waste paper, rock salt, and pure garbage sit (often uncovered) right next to residential homes. A large water treatment plant adds to the local stench while the Covanta waste incinerator is nearby producing toxic waste ash and multiple superfund waste sites sit adjacent to (and sometimes directly underneath) residential areas where people live.
The people of Ironbound are courageous and they are sick. Suffering in disproportionate numbers from asthma and other lung and heart-related illnesses, they strive daily through the work of the Ironbound Community Corporation, GreenFaith, and other advocacy organizations for cleaner air and land, adequate healthcare, decent education, and some outdoor play areas that are clean and safe for their children. They are our inspiration, and the reason environmental justice is and must be an integral part of the environmental movement toward sustainability.