Drive-By Distress in NJ Port Cities

 Image courtesy of Rutgers/CEED

Image courtesy of Rutgers/CEED

We drive, ride, or fly by New Jersey’s massive port operations all the time - and yet we rarely stop to see or even think about the impact on people who live nearby. To paraphrase one of the panelists in a recent Rutgers conference on clean ports, the shipping industry is hiding in plain sight: everybody knows it’s there; everybody benefits from the trade that passes through them, but few take notice of the environmental costs.

The Rutgers Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease (CEED) addressed that last week by convening a “health summit” in Newark entitled “Public Health and Our Ports: The Road to Clean Air”, in which scientific research met community activism. The panels - focused on problems, solutions, and actions - comprised equal numbers of scholars and activists.   

 Photo by Donna Liu

Photo by Donna Liu

A morning tour of port facilities set the dramatic scene for the day’s deliberations. As two buses full of conference participants wended their way through the logistical maze that is Port Newark, Amy Goldsmith, NJ State Director for Clean Water Action, described a typical port-side community: poor air quality, high noise levels, diesel truck traffic on city streets at the rate of one per minute, low-flying jets overhead every two minutes.

 Photo by Donna Liu

Photo by Donna Liu

Compound the proximity of scrap metal yards, sewage treatment plants, and recycling operations, and you have a toxic environment that skews disproportionately to poorer communities nearby.

“Welcome to our world,” said Kim Gaddy, the Environmental Justice Organizer for Clean Water Action. “To me it’s all about political will. We understand the problem, and we have solutions.”

 Scene from “Countdown to Cleaner Air”

Scene from “Countdown to Cleaner Air”

“It’s environmental disrespect.” That’s how panelist Walter Leak described it, and he knows first-hand: as Deacon of Mt. Calvary United Church of the Deliverance in Elizabeth, Leak spearheaded a citizens’ movement to ban truck traffic through the center of town. His efforts formed the basis of a documentary, “Countdown to Cleaner Air”, which tells the story of collaboration between the residents of First Street, and the CEED scientists at Rutgers.

 “Defining the Problem(s)” panelists: Judith Graber (moderator), Panos Georgopoulos, Howard Kipen, Walter Leak, Melissa Miles

“Defining the Problem(s)” panelists: Judith Graber (moderator), Panos Georgopoulos, Howard Kipen, Walter Leak, Melissa Miles

Among the measures proposed to improve the air quality is for the Port Authority to stick to a promise that was made eight years ago - but “rolled back” in 2016 - to ban trucks that fail to meet EPA emissions standards. The Coalition for Healthy Ports estimates that reinstating that ban would significantly reduce the amount of particulate matter in the air, and thereby reduce incidence of pollution-related illnesses in the “fence-line communities”..

The higher rates of asthma and heart disease has been confirmed by a great deal of scientific research, some of which was presented at this conference. Rutgers Public Health Dean Perry Halkitis urged participants to consider the people who are “raised in contexts that burden them.” CEED’s Director of Community Engagement, Robert Laumbach, added “We want to envision a future green, clean port - and how to get there.”



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