Successful interfaith activism

N.J. religious coalition helps force pollution-site cleanups
June 1, 2005

When a federal appeals court ruled in February that Honeywell Industries must move forward with a $400 million cleanup of a chromium-contaminated site in Hudson County, N.J., it marked a major victory for local religious leaders.

For more than 16 years, the Interfaith Community Organization has fought to force Honeywell, PPG Industries and Tierra Solutions to clean up about 200 sites containing several million tons of chromium waste in Hudson County. That included filing a 1995 lawsuit demanding Honeywell clean up its largest chromium site. After the court’s ruling, the cleanup began in March.

“This is about what determined and creative citizens can accomplish using a whole toolbox of public skills,” said Joe Morris, ICO organizer since 1991. Based in approximately 15 religious congregations in Jersey City and Hoboken, ICO is the local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide citizens’ organizing network.

Previously, Morris noted, the ICO successfully had pushed for cleanup at 35 other sites. The most recent cleanup involves excavating 1.5 million tons of waste including hexavalent chromium, an Environmental Protection Agency Class A carcinogen, or one known to cause cancer in humans.

For years, ICO members said, major manufacturers in Hudson County processed chromite ore into chromate chemicals, which are used in paints, chrome plating, leather tanning and other industrial processes and products. The production process left millions of tons of chromate chemical waste, they said. Those mountains of waste later became fill at schools, homes, playgrounds and other Hudson County building sites, predominately in densely populated Jersey City, home mostly to low-income African Americans, they said.

Focus on health and justice

The cleanup efforts began because the ICO needed clean land for residential development, said the Rev. Geoff Curtiss, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Hoboken. But the larger issue quickly became a focus on health.

“It was found that chromium has been put in many different sections of Hudson County,” said Curtiss, “so we believe that there are significant correlations between chromium and the high cancer rate in the areas.”

It also was a justice issue, he said, noting that “these poorer neighborhoods are where the contaminations were found … “If the contaminations were found in Morristown, the corporate headquarters of Honeywell, also a wealthy city, the chromium would have been cleaned up immediately,” he said.

“Walter Brueggeman has reminded us of the deep connection that land and the practice of our faith has to each other … when the land is polluted, it’s an expression that our faith is polluted,” Curtiss said. “When injustices are practiced on the land, it’s evidence that our faith is practicing injustice.”

“We cannot have segregated communities; we must have balanced communities,” he said. “We cannot have poor people living on poor land that produces poor health care, while some people can retreat to suburban communities because they are wealthy enough to get away from our polluted rivers [and] land that are part of our environment.”ICO is pursuing the cleanups “because no one else will,” noted Morris. The court’s judgment in the February ruling said the state Department of Environmental Protection permitted 20 years of “footdragging” by Honeywell over the current cleanup.

“We think that government at all levels have forgotten how to hold polluters accountable,” said Morris. “We were doing the job that the DEP just would not do.” “This lawsuit does not say we have finished,” he added. “We have been pushing for health studies for the last 15 years,” and that work will continue, he said.

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