How we poisoned the Passaic
Photo: wirednewyork.comOn the morning of June 2, 1983, the governor of New Jersey declared a state of emergency. Speaking at a press conference in his Trenton office, then Governor Thomas Kean told reporters that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection had detected disturbingly high levels of dioxin at the former Diamond Alkali chemical plant at 80 Lister Avenue in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood. With a three-page executive order, he shut down the Newark Farmer’s Market, a major food distribution center about a block from the Diamond site; stopped all train traffic around 80 Lister Avenue; and expanded an already existing ban against eating fish or shellfish from the Passaic River. Governor Kean stopped short of evacuation, but he offered temporary housing in Newark’s YMCA to those residents who lived closest to the plant site, and advised everyone to stay indoors during the cleanup operation.
The next morning, June 3, a dozen or so federal Environmental Protection Agency investigators, dressed in Hazmat gear, fanned out across the Ironbound. They searched the Diamond Alkali plant site, the adjacent banks of the Passaic River and the surrounding streets, homes, schools, and businesses for any signs of stray dioxin. Press photos from the next few days show white-suited EPA workers literally vacuuming the streets of the Ironbound.
“It was like an invasion,” recalls Nancy Zak, a longtime neighborhood resident, who works for the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local nonprofit. “All these guys in these moon suits were walking around. We’re wearing our regular clothes. Nobody’s telling us we should dress or do anything differently. It was a shocking day for people.”
In the weeks following Governor Kean’s announcement, the men in the moon suits went house by house, street by street, factory by factory in the vicinity of 80 Lister Avenue. They collected dirt and weeds and street grit and the dust from vacuum cleaner bags and industrial air filters — 532 samples in total — and analyzed it all for the presence of dioxin. When the EPA released the final results of its cleanup operation, investigators reported “massive” amounts of dioxin on Diamond’s 80 Lister Avenue property, including a 51,000 ppb reading in the ground beneath an old storage tank. EPA workers also recorded high levels of dioxin off-site — in an air duct at the abandoned waste treatment facility next door to the Diamond plant, and in dust from the vacuum cleaner bag of Carol De Francis, who lived nearby at 13 Esther Street. In total, the off-site samples contained levels of dioxin ranging from zero to 15 parts per billion. At the time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control considered concentrations above one ppb to present “an unacceptable risk to human health.”