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STUDY: Majority of Superfund Sites Built Close to Public Housing


A new report released by the Shriver Center on Poverty Law found that 70% of all Superfund sites in the US are located within 1 mile of certain federally assisted housing. Poisonous Homes: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Federally Assisted Housing details how decades of environmental racism have systematically put residents of federally assisted housing in direct proximity to these toxins. The report used the US Metals SC-New-Jersey-Chapter-Logo_Horizontal_ColorRefining Company (USMR) site in Carteret, NJ as a case study. Almost 700 units of federally assisted housing are located within or near the contaminated USMR site.


“This Poisonous Homes study shows that people in public housing are the victims of deliberate policies that put them next to toxic sites. It clearly shows the Environmental Justice implications because 70% of all Superfund sites are located within 1 mile of federally assisted housing. In New Jersey, it is no different. We have more Superfund sites than any other state and we are one of the most densely populated states in the country. In Carteret, almost 700 federally assisted housing units are located within or near the USMR Superfund site, and that’s not counting state-assisted housing,” said Jeff Tittel, DIrector of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “These communities are not only affected by Superfund Sites but also impacted by the worst pollution in the country. Overburdened communities face unhealthy levels of air pollution. They also have high levels of lead coming from industrial facilities and Superfund sites as well as in their schools and homes with lead pipes and paint.”


About 77,000 people living in federally assisted housing in the U.S. are located within 1 mile of the country’s most hazardous waste sites, according to the study. The report details how federal agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put families even further at risk by failing to notify them of environmental contamination, approving new construction while ignoring known environmental contamination, and failing to provide them with real choices as to where they live. 


“This study reinforces what we already know, that low-income communities of color are disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental contamination. New Jersey has a history of discriminatory housing patterns, with redlining, blockbusting, and racial steering. They deliberately kept public housing out of middle-class neighborhoods, which is why we end up with affordable housing near Superfund sites and in areas with high levels of pollution,” said Jeff Tittel. “Newark has multiple Superfund sites, including the White Chemical site, Diamond Alkali site, and Standard Chlorine. PJP Landfill is in Jersey City, Universal Oil Products is in East Rutherford, and Welsbach & General Gas Mantle is in Camden.” 


New Jersey currently has 114 Superfund sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List, and 35 sites that have been deleted from the NPL. Most of New Jersey’s Superfund sites are located in overburdened communities. These include sites like White Chemical Corporation in Newark, Riverside Industrial Park in Newark, Standard Chlorine in Kearny, and Diamond Head Oil Refinery in Kearny. Waterfront South in Camden has the Welsbach & General Gas Mantle (Camden Radiation) site. This community is also home to a cement plant, a power plant, a garbage incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant.


“For far too long, Superfund Sites across the country have been allowed to poison our environment and the communities around them. These sites are a danger to public health and the environment. The contaminants found at these sites cause cancers, kidney problems, brain damage, learning disabilities, and many more serious health problems. The chemicals from these sites affect groundwater and reservoirs,” said Tittel. “The DEP and EPA need to perform full cleanups of these sites with full removal of toxic material. More importantly, they need to make sure that people living in these communities are fully informed about the dangers of the contamination.”


The EPA has only cleaned up 35 of about 150 Superfund sites in New Jersey that have been on their list at various times since 1980. Of these 35, some of them have been capped to contain polluted material rather than fully remediated at a greater cost. President Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget cuts federal funding for Superfund Sites by $113 million to $1.1 million. 


“We need real action from the EPA to protect human health and completely remove contamination in these sites. There are already 5 sites in New Jersey that aren’t getting funding, and President Trump’s budget cuts will mean even more sites will continue to not be cleaned up properly. These funding cuts will prevent EPA from performing full cleanups. Every day of delay means more pollution from these sites contaminating our environment and endangering public health,” said Tittel. “Many of these sites are vulnerable to climate impacts like sea-level rise, but they are being capped instead of cleaned up properly. Capping in flood-prone areas is dangerous because flooding undermines the cap and leaches toxins into the water. Also, springs and sediments can leach out of the seal and into the surrounding waters.”


According to a recent study by The New School in New York City, 80% of incinerators in the U.S are located in environmental justice communities. New Jersey has 4 incinerators, one in Camden, Rahway, Westville, and Newark.


“This is just the latest study showing that low-income and minority communities get a disproportionate amount of pollution. The New School released a study last year showing that incinerators that spew toxic chemicals are put in low-income communities across the country. Almost 8 out of 10 incinerators in the country are in low-income communities of color, and in NJ it’s 100%. New Jersey’s facilities are in the Ironbound area of Newark, not in Short Hills, Union County’s incinerator is in the only black community of Rahway and South Jersey’s facility is in Westville, not Haddonfield,” said Jeff Tittel. “These communities are breathing in toxic fumes from nearby polluting facilities while also being exposed to lead in their drinking water from lead pipes and contamination from Superfund sites.”


Superfund sites in New Jersey have posed threats to the public for decades. An explosion and fire at the Chemical Control site in 1980 and burned for 15 hours, evacuating entire city blocks in Elizabeth and releasing high concentrations of contaminants into the air. The Reich Farm site caused cancer in Toms River.


“New Jersey and the EPA want to check off cleanups on paper instead of protecting public health and making polluters pay, but this study shows that overburdened communities are the ones most at risk from their negligence. We need a Superfund tax to help pay for orphan sites because polluters need to be held accountable for these cleanups. New Jersey hasn’t done anything to address our Superfund sites or the fact that they disproportionately affect overburdened communities. They could be suing on some of these sites for a full cleanup under the Spill Act, but they aren’t. They also keep raiding the Spill Act funds,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This study is not only a reminder of how hazardous these sites are, but of New Jersey’s history of redlining and racial profiling. New Jersey needs to take real action to make sure these sites are properly cleaned up.”