The City Planner Book Club Focuses on the Environment – Part II

Recent selections of the facebook-based City Planner Book Club (affiliated with the NYMetro APA) offer powerful accounts of the catastrophic consequences, for human and ecosystem health, of pollution and habitat destruction. These include Silent Spring, the 1962 classic on the dangers of pesticides, Tom’s River, the  Pulitzer Prize winning case study on the poisoning of a New Jersey community, and (for a fall discussion) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a global and historic perspective on environmental pressures and the fate of humanity.

For their August 9 (2018) gathering at Zeppelin Hall Biergarten in Jersey City, the City Planner Book Club discussed the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Dan Fagin, Toms River.    At the request of the NYMetro Environmental Committee, one of the urbanists that attended that discussion, Kayla Doshier, kindly offered her take on the book (below). As a planner, she finds the narrative here to be a valuable reminder of the “delicate balance of people, place, and planet.” 

Toms River: One Planner’s Takeaway

By Kayla Doshier

While Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, confronts the overt, visible spraying, and use of toxic chemicals on the landscape, Toms River, by Dan Fagin, looks at the hidden consequences of chemical manufacturing

Chemical manufacturing descended upon Toms River in the 1950’s, with the mass production of dye manufacturing led by Ciba-Geigy. The positives of the giant company were felt almost immediately by nearly everyone in the region with a great boon in economic prosperity; the negatives were, for many years, hidden.

The town of Toms River is in northern part of Ocean County New Jersey, at the edge of the New York Metropolitan Region.

While the plant was producing chemical dyes for products, the chemical waste was being incredibly mismanaged. Ciba-Geigy was not only disposing of the waste in improperly lined ponds, but also through pipelines to the river and the ocean. Other waste was emitted via smokestacks—but only at night so the residents wouldn’t notice. Meanwhile, the byproduct of another large plant in the region owned by the Union Carbide Corporation was disposed of in an illegal arrangement with a local trash hauler named Nick Fernicola who, starting in the early ‘70’s, offered a local farm family $40 a month (never paid) to dump barrels of toxic waste on their property. The Reich’s farm and the property of the former Ciba Geigy plant are both superfund sites today.

Not only was the disposal of the waste inadequate, and frequently illegal, it was also almost always done without the knowledge of the locals. The chemicals were invisible; their effects were not. The government and most of the citizens fully supported Ciba-Geigy, and the disposal of harmful chemical waste continued for decades, mostly uncontested—that is, until a cluster of children with cancer was acknowledged.

A basic foundation for city planners is to strive for a healthy balance among people, place, and planet. As planners, we often find ourselves at odds with one or two of the above-mentioned interactions. One theme that stood out from the text was the struggle between the environment and economy in Toms River. For example, for decades the quality of the drinking water and air was at juxtaposed against the economic benefit of having the sizable company of Ciba-Geigy within the town to produce jobs. As mentioned in the book, Ciba-Geigy was the largest employer of the region and closing the manufacturing plant would have been devastating, politically and economically. For decades environmental and human health was sacrificed in the name of economic prosperity.

The facts hidden from the public in Toms River was reminiscent to some book club members of the case of tainted water in Flint, Michigan.

Another theme that interested planners at our book club discussion was the deliberate lack of government action to protect citizens against the dangerous effects of the chemical waste. There was a reticence among town officials to confront Ciba Geigy, in spite of evidence of human health impacts by the early 1980’s, because, among other things, “the 1972 indictments were ancient history, the river pollution of the early 1960s was forgotten entirely, and the secret contamination of the town’s drinking water in 1965 was still a secret”(p. 138). In that respect, it was an easy transition into a discussion of such present-day environmental/public health crises as the lead in Flint, Michigan’s water supply.

Fagin includes, towards the end of the book, a look at parallel circumstances in the so-called “cancer villages” in Chongqing Province in China. He notes the importance, comparable to what happened in Toms River, of the kind of amateur epidemiology that exposes the impacts of pollution on the health of entire communities: “The hotspots [of cancer] they find tend to be outside cities because many of the worst-polluting factories in China are in exurban areas, and also because semirural communities still have enough social stability for residents to recognize a potential cluster. . . Even the Ministry of Health acknowledges that pollution-industrial waste dumped into rivers and groundwater, plus air emissions from factories and power plants-has made cancer the leading cause of death in China” (p. 456).

Politicians, professionals, and citizens battled for decades in Toms River over the delicate balance of people, place, and planet. And it is up to those same people to choose how we move forward to prevent another Toms River, another Flint, and the cancer villages of Chongqing from happening again.

Related Links:

China’s “Cancer Villages”–from Australian Public Broadcast Service: