Metropolis

“This Is Slow Murder”

I love my city. I love my neighborhood. It may be killing me.

A bicycle is seen lying on the ground. Two people stand in front of it.
Aymann Ismail

I always thought it was a little cruel to call New Jersey the Garden State. We’re famous for our pollution. The state has more Superfund sites than another other, 114, and I grew up near four of them in Newark, a particular nexus for toxic filth. The tap water is often poisonous. Our industrial zone has several waste management and processing plants. Soon, just under 2 miles from my front door here, another plant may rise, where “biosolids”—or treated waste, aka poop—would be funneled in, heated to 1,500 degrees, and sold as concrete thickener. What the plant, from Aries Clean Technologies, will leave behind in our neighborhood is now the subject of fierce debate.

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I live in the Ironbound, the neighborhood where the plant is expected to be built. We are already sandwiched between a handful of different polluters. Covanta Essex, a trash-to-energy incinerator, sits on the north side. We’ve got Newark Liberty International Airport to the south. We’ve got the Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal to the east, which is serviced by dozens of diesel trucks a day, and then we have the cars spewing fumes as they sit in traffic on U.S. Route 1-9, Interstate 78, and the New Jersey Turnpike, which converge in our area. Exposure to the pollution here, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, has been “linked to increased rates of asthma, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and neurological problems in children.”

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Cynthia Mellon, chair of Newark’s Environmental Commission, told me environmental justice advocates have been calling to recognize that communities of color here have been heavily overburdened by pollution in the city since the ’80s: “For us, the key word is cumulative impact. Because when you have so many kinds of pollution gathered together in one place, it creates a very overburdened, toxic, and dangerous situation.”

I loved growing up in Newark. As a young Muslim after 9/11, I had constant problems when I ventured out, especially to New York. In Newark, my neighborhood was mostly working-class immigrants, and here I was only bullied for being bad at soccer. But our outsider community is also home to things more affluent areas don’t want and wouldn’t tolerate. Even my fondest memories include this: My older brothers both held summer jobs as lifeguards at the only outdoor pool in Hayes Park. I was there every weekend—until it was suddenly emptied and shut down. I had no idea why. Mellon told me it was because the Environmental Protection Agency found dangerous amounts of dioxin, a chemical carcinogen known to cause cancer, in the pool water and in the dirt.

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A boy rides his bike on an apartment parking lot.
Aymann Ismail
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It’s always been this way here, Mellon said. “Newark is like the cradle of industry. Alexander Hamilton identified Passaic Falls as having huge potential. The Passaic River in Newark has history that goes back to Colonial times,” she told me. “In the old days, people thought they could just throw anything in the river and it would wash it clean. Some areas have been capped”—sealed to prevent further contamination—“in the south part of the Ironbound. People don’t remember that Newark used to have a lot of smelters. There was also a battery factory right where Terrell Homes is that left behind huge deposits of lead.”

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Terrell Homes is near Riverbank Park. I live only a few doors down. Growing up, it’s where my friends and I would spend hours every day of the week. That park too was shut down abruptly for a time.

Like many in Newark, I’ve dealt with some of the pollutants firsthand. I developed asthma, like 1 in 4 children in Newark do, or about three times the national rate. I breathe this air every day, and it’s hard to say what kind of risks I’m taking. Now, my wife and I are expecting our first child this summer, a baby boy. We’re beginning to have conversations about whether it’s safe to raise a baby here. Every couple of days, the air stinks like sewage, allegedly thanks to a local plant that renders animal fat just 2,000 feet from the new proposed new biosolids plant. Every once in a while, the sky turns pink or purple, reportedly thanks to the trash incineration plant nearby. Can we afford more pollution? Can my son?

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“You’re getting exposed to relatively high air pollution levels by pollution standards,” said John Balmes, a pulmonary physician, professor of medicine at University of California–San Francisco, and professor of environmental health sciences at Berkeley. He specializes in air pollution and health outcomes. I asked him about the specific risks I take by living here. Balmes said that while air in much of the United States is actually getting cleaner, he is more worried about my still-pregnant wife. “We do know remedial exposures during pregnancy can have an effect on childhood and, later in their life, have outcomes. So you’d like your wife to be exposed to as low level of pollution as possible,” he said.

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Balmes said certain pollutants may be linked to lower IQs in children. “I grew up when there was a lot of lead contamination. So I may have had another point or two IQ if I hadn’t grown with all that exposure, he said. “For an individual kid, it’s not a big worry—it’s across a population. If you take a point off everybody’s kid’s IQ, then it becomes a bigger issue, especially for kids with lower IQs for other reasons. There’s some evidence, I’m not going to lie to you, but not enough to think you should run out to the suburbs.”

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“There are so many systemic ways in which Black and brown people are pushed up against pollution,” said Melissa Miles, the executive director for the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. Her oldest son was only 1 year old when he was diagnosed with asthma. “Folks who were newer and poorer lived closest to the pollution even before Newark became a ‘chocolate city.’ Then fast forward through the rebellion, white flight, redlining, the processes that lead to white people moving out to the suburbs and commuting to Newark or New York for work, and Black and brown people not being able to leave Newark because of lack of ability to get homeowners loans or redlining. So, this is a continuation of that history.”

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Miles was involved in the passage of a landmark environmental justice state bill in September that will require regulators take into account pollution that already exists in a place where applicants want to set up shop. “When COVID happened, it was like, ‘Hey, we’re seeing the communities that are most impacted by COVID are also the communities that have the highest levels of air pollution, which are Black and brown communities.’ They were hearing us, but they were getting tired of it. And then George Floyd was murdered, and then suddenly, it was like ‘What do y’all need?’ ” she said. “Black Lives Matter helped open the door for us to get the strongest language in the law. It wasn’t magic, but we were poised to take advantage of this moment where finally folks in positions of power began to feel accountable by a larger base of folks who were watching.”

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The landmark bill acknowledges the combined impact of different pollutants have on the socioeconomic and health vulnerabilities of “overburdened communities,” or a census block group with low-income, minority, or non-English-speaking populations. It will give the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection the authority to assess the pollution burden that already exists in these communities, rather than just whether an applicant will emit more pollutants than allowed by law. The law is still in the process of coming into full effect, but when it does, it will give the NJDEP the ability to reject a permit application based on how it would add to a city’s pollution burden. So if a new power plant wants to come into Newark because we are zoned for it, the NJDEP will be able to take into account whether there is already a power plant across the street. It’s a requirement the agency didn’t have before.

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Aries Clean Technologies, the Tennessee corporation known as PHG Energy until 2017, is now battling to get its new waste plant approved in the Ironbound. The new law doesn’t affect those plans quite yet. But Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, sent a letter to the Newark Planning Board in February on behalf of the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local advocacy group, raising concerns about pollution and odors from the plant, among other issues.

Maria Lopez-Nuñez, the deputy director of organizing and advocacy for Ironbound Community Corporation, lives not far from me and the proposed plant site. She has been one of the most vocal advocates against the project. “Everybody says, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be clean, it’s state of the art.’ Then two years later, it smells like shit down here.”

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Lopez-Nuñez said she’s talked to dozens of residents in the area, and the feeling is universal: Nobody wants another plant to open here. “They shouldn’t be coming to an already disproportionately burdened neighborhood like the Ironbound. Our pollution is internationally recognized,” she said. “This is slow murder. People react when we see police brutality on camera, but it’s hard to capture air pollution, or the slow poison of having bad water, or having the air be toxic.”

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A power plant is seen through a fence.
Aymann Ismail
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Christopher Kidd, director of business development for Aries, insisted to me the new waste treatment plant is not a polluter but part of the solution to environmental problems, and that its emissions will be below state and federal standards. The proposed facility will use “biosolids” to manufacture “biochar,” which, Aries says, is a cleaner option to use in manufacturing concrete. According to Aries, this is an opportunity to recycle biosolids, which often end up in landfills.

Kidd said he scouted the Newark location more than two years ago, before the environmental justice bill was passed. “It makes sense from a development standpoint and long-term strategic planning standpoint,” he said, because the area is already “a major source of biosolids” and waste: “Why would I not want to be near them?” As a bonus, he said, there is concrete manufacturing plant next door. That could mean reduced truck traffic, which is one of the more significant contributors of pollution in the neighborhood.

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But if the concertation of plants and waste in Newark is attractive to him, isn’t that exactly the problem residents are raising? “Look, we’re not trying to solve the region’s or the city’s issue in regards to all that,” Kidd said. “But when you continue to build up the port of Newark, and tell business to come, what do you think you’re going to get?

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“I get the fact that there are heavy industrial areas that typically find their ways into cities, but we’re having a discussion around how cities in the United States grew. They zoned off areas to bring tax revenue into the cities way back before there was an issue, over a hundred years ago. I can’t change all that. If that needs to change, then ordinances within the city needs to change. City planning overall needs to change,” Kidd continued.

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He sounded a little exasperated by arguments that the new plant would further lower the quality of life in the area. “I can’t solve everyone’s problems there, and I should have the right to be able to come in there and take care of this problem, which is the disposal of waste stream,” he said. “With my process, I help prevent them from landfilling that material.”

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I asked Kidd if he believed it would be safe to raise my baby here, a couple miles from this proposed plant. He paused. “I can tell you that what we are working on will help the problem,” he said. “It’s the type of industry that you want to rebrand or reface the Ironbound with. When we talk about green manufacturing, that’s what this is.”

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In March, Aries presented its plan to the city’s Environmental Commission, in a meeting heavily attended by community members who made their displeasure known. The development is currently stuck in a kind of limbo waiting on its safe land use permit to be processed, and there’s some back-and-forth between the planning board and the zoning board over who has jurisdiction over the project. “We’re waiting on them to figure that out,” Kidd said. “What we’re experiencing right now in the city of Newark is about land use, not necessarily about environmental issues.”

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Mellon, for her part, is disgusted by the proposal. “It’s like the flip side of cumulative impact. They look at these certain types of polluting sewage treatment plants and they go, ‘Oh, perfect. We fit right in there, ’” she said. “The Aries plant is a very unpopular project. One of them made this very ridiculous statement like ‘We followed the feces,’ referencing the PVSC treatment plant that is right where they want to do it. And that just really got to people. People were up in arms, like, ‘Don’t talk to us that way. You can’t do this.’ ”

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Lopez-Nuñez, the advocate who lives nearby, knows my wife and I are expecting. I told her we were considering leaving the city. “That’s not fair—you shouldn’t have to leave the place you love because of the quality of the air,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to race to get out of the hood. We should be able to make our neighborhood better, not run away from it. And that means standing up to corporations like Aries.”

The truth is, I can’t afford to leave right away. So far, I’ve set up an air purifier near my coming baby’s crib. I bought a baby bottle sterilizer to use after I rinse them out with tap water. I’m going to get synthetic turf to lay on the concrete behind my home for the baby to play on. It feels like danger is all around. Beyond having asthma, I have no idea how I’ve been affected—by the contaminated water I swam in, the dirty soil I played on, the air I continue to breathe. Soon, I’ll have to decide whether to take that risk with my son. Many of my neighbors have no choice at all.

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