Pioneering environmental crusader urges political fight in Roxbury Township

Lois Gibbs said angry residents must take the fight right to Christie

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2014 2:01 pm | Updated: 2:03 pm, Thu May 22, 2014.
By MIKE CONDON Editor

ROXBURY TWP. – For more than two hours, long-time, world-famous environmental activist Lois Gibbs held more than 150 township residents at attention.

When she spoke about the Fenimore landfill Wednesday night at the Roxbury Senior Center at Horseshoe Lake, one could more than hear that proverbial pin hit the floor.

Some of the news she brought to the residents concerned about ill-health affects from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP’s) landfill remediation project was good; some was not so good.

But, she knew how to command the room.

She laid the blame for what she called a disaster and a tragedy at the feet of Gov. Chris Christie, and said that in more than 35 years, she has never seen a pollution situation this bad, where no soil test results are even available.

Gibbs made national headlines in the late 1970’s when she started grassroots opposition to the Love Canal pollution problem in Niagara, N.Y.

Gibbs’s involvement in environmental causes began in 1978 when she discovered that her 7-year-old son’s elementary school in Niagara Falls was built on a toxic waste dump.

Subsequent investigation revealed that her entire neighborhood, Love Canal, had been built on top of this dump.

With no prior experience in community activism, Gibbs, who was then 27, organized her neighbors and formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association.

She led her community in a battle against the local, state, and federal governments. After years of struggle, 833 families were eventually evacuated, and cleanup of Love Canal began. National press coverage made Lois Gibbs a household name. Her efforts also led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or “Superfund,” which is used to locate and clean up toxic waste sites throughout the United States.

In 1980, Gibbs formed the Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, later renamed the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), where she currently serves as executive director.

CHEJ is a grassroots environmental crisis center that provides information, resources, technical assistance and training to community groups around the nation. CHEJ seeks to form strong local organizations in order to protect neighborhoods from exposure to hazardous wastes.

And that’s how she came to speak in Roxbury last week.

Fearing inaction and inattention from Trenton, the Roxbury Environmental Action Coalition (R.E.A.C.T.) invited Gibbs to speak at what they called “a night of inspiration.”

R.E.A.C.T. was formed by township residents a year ago who fear the affects of the construction and demolition debris that was dumped at the Mooney Mountain site for nearly two years. Last fall, the DEP took over the site from owner Richard Bernardi, and began remediation efforts, primarily to halt the noxious hydrogen sulfide smell that has permeated area neighborhoods. The DEP plans to place a plastic liner over the material and cap it with clean dirt. Residents object, however, and want the material trucked out of town.

“Gov. Christie allowed this fill into the landfill. I saw the stacks (smoke stacks which are emitting vapors of burned off hydrogen sulfide gas on the site). They were never tested. Now we know that these stacks also cause problems. What are they putting in the air?” she asked.

“Christie made this mess. These folks were living in a lovely place, and you do have a lovely community,” she told the residents. “Yes, there was a landfill here, but it wasn’t causing any problems. Christie did this to you. He has to fix it, and the only way to fix it is to dig it up and take it out,” she said.

“He has to come to the table, and the state legislature needs to take his authority away to regulate landfills. These are human lives directly being affected,” she said.

She cited Pompton Lakes, and said that is another “horrible site” with polluted ground and water. “It’s full of mercury. It wasn’t a Superfund site, but they dug it up and took it out,” she said.

Gibbs said she travels all over the country encouraging and bolstering grassroots environmental groups to stand up and fight.

“I was in Portland last week. They have the same problem. And in the 70’s, I remember the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky. They had this toxic material take out. Of course the state doesn’t want to take it out. They don’t want to pay for it. They picked the cheapest way out. What they don’t realize is that 30 years down the road, they are still going to be paying for this,” she said.

“And they have to get rid of all of the waste water from the site, and they will have to deal with the leachate, and 30 years of those smoke stacks. They say it’s water vapor, but I’ve never seen a burner that didn’t release dioxin into the atmosphere. And nobody has tested these stacks. Nobody tested the pile. Nobody tested anything. I have never seen anything like this,” she said.

“It’s baffling. How can they not even test what is coming out of the stacks? We don’t know what’s in that landfill. Without any samples, we just don’t know who’s hiding what,” Gibbs said.

Although she receives many invitations to speak annually, Gibbs said she only visits groups that are well-organized, have a well thought out plan and which have demonstrated their commitment to stick with it.

Her non-profit is staffed with eight, so attendance in various hot spots must be limited.

She described her Love Canal days as an experience in both “innocence and ignorance.”

“I was a baby myself. I was 27. I was a housewife with two small children. My children were sick. Other children in the neighborhood were sick. And then I read a story in a local paper on hazardous waste. That was three blocks from my home,” she said.

All these years later, Gibbs said she is somewhat surprised she is still an environmental activist. She never planned on being one. She had first considered a career in nursing, or maybe working with the elderly.

She estimates she travels personally to 40 areas per year. Hosting groups are asked to pay for her travel expenses, but she does not charge for her visits.

She focuses on landfills, fracking, well pollution, air pollution and other man-made disasters.

“I teach people how to be better advocates. I help them figure out a strategy,” she said.

Some 30 years later, she stood at the gate of the Fenimore landfill early Wednesday.

“I went in as far as we could. We were asked to leave,” she said.

She spent much of the day with R.E.A.C.T. and said her role is to teach others how to fight disasters like this.

“They have a plan. They have a strategy. They meet regularly. They have been to the Highlands Council meetings. They have been to Trenton. They have demonstrated that they are willing to fight. My job is to come out and help if I can. This whole disaster is due to politics. They (the DEP and Christie) broke every rule. They let a felon (Bernardi) operate a landfill. You don’t reopen a landfill without a whole bunch of tests. You don’t run an incinerator, which is what they are using to burn off the gas, without a stack test. Nobody has a manifest of what was dumped in there. Somebody just decided to do this, and the heck with the rules,” she said.

“In 36 years, I have never seen anything like this. I am shocked. Ohio is pretty bad. We do a lot of work there, but even they do stack tests, and there are public comment periods. I know the township (Roxbury) is taking a lot of the blame, but it’s a little township. They don’t have the money for this, and there can be political repercussions. All of a sudden, the state can reduce the money the town gets for road repairs,” Gibbs said. “I’ve seen it all happen.”

“Towns can be penalized for speaking out. That’s a real threat. If you are told to shut up, you shut up,” she said.

Gibbs said she is pleased that the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is planning a health study in Roxbury. “They have some authority, but they have no money, and no teeth,” she said.

R.E.A.C.T. Speaks

Several R.E.A.C.T. members also spoke before Gibbs was introduced.

Brenda Parr said that her long “love affair” with New Jersey is over, as a result of the Fenimore matter.

“This has been a spectacular failure, and this failure is being perpetuated. And, it was caused by the people who are supposed to serve and protect us,” she said.

“We are all suffering tremendously due to that failure. We are dealing with fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, confusion, grief, depression and lost security. When breathing causes fear, something is undeniably wrong. Our home values have suffered. We have lost our ability to protect our children. We are suffering with severe headaches and breathing problems. My daughter has been to the emergency room once,” Parr said.

“We are caught in the crossfire. We did our homework and we are trying to make our voices heard, but we are met with silence and dishonesty and attempts to discredit us,” she said.

“Our elected officials are trying to sweep this under the rug. We need the support of our legislators, but this isn’t about what’s right or wrong. I can say that this is wrong on so many levels. If one life is put in danger, the price is too high. The governor and the DEP need to fix this immediately. We need a department of common sense. You can’t develop a plan to remediate a landfill when you don’t even know what’s in there,” Parr said.

‘Boondoggle’

Gibbs called the remediation plans and the entire project a “boondoggle” and said she has never seen something as outrageous.

“I have been to every state except North Dakota, and I am here to tell you that this is another Chris Christie bamboozling. He allowed this to happen. He allowed that stack to be built there without a stack test. I have visited 12,000 communities and have never seen anything like this,” Gibbs said.

“His idea of capping and burning is insane. When you have a burner like this, you are putting dioxin into the air. You are simply changing one type of chemical pollution for another type. And that doesn’t even take into account the chemical and water waste. Putting a cap out there is not the end of this. It’s the beginning of a 60-year endeavor that is going to cost millions of dollars and create three new waste streams. This is not a fix. If a private person did this, they would go to jail,” Gibbs said.

“You can’t put the governor in jail, but the federal EPA should take his right away to manage landfill remediation,” she said.

“New Jersey has a bad boy law. It means that convicted felons can’t fun landfills. Yet, Gov. Christie has let a convicted felon run this site. The township has a right to know what is in there. I never, ever seen a town be refused testing. Most towns don’t want to know, but they aren’t denied,” she said.

“It’s scary. It’s very scary. Christie has basically done whatever he wanted to do there. They all work for Christie. I would be willing to bet my large million dollar paycheck that I get from my non-profit that Christie made this decision,” she said.

Gibbs said things will be worse not better, if the capping and burning continues.

“What about all this wastewater that this stack is going to produce? That has to go somewhere. Do they have a 30 year plan on the books for emissions and water and leachate?” she asked.

“If they cap it, all of these gases will simply go underground. You will wind up with chemicals in the water, and you will be taking baths and showers in chemicals,” she said.

The Good News?

Gibbs said fighting back won’t be easy, but she said the residents can win this battle.

“You have the ability to win this one, but you aren’t going to do it based on science or law. You have to be politically active. This investigation (two state legislators have called for an investigation of the DEP) didn’t happen because these legislators care. They called for this investigation because you are in their faces. You are making a lot of noise and they are trying to find a way to shut you up,” Gibbs said.

“The governor is guilty. He did this. Get this investigation, but don’t wait to get the clean-up you deserve. It won’t be easy,” she said.

She said it took her children developing liver problems, epilepsy, immune deficiency problems and leukemia before she acted at Love Canal.

“My kids survived. But a little neighborhood kid named John Kenny didn’t. He died at 7 year old. What happened to me is just like what is happening here. The City of Niagara Falls, the EPA and the State of New York knew we were being poisoned. But we weren’t wealthy, They thought we didn’t contribute much to society. They said we weren’t worth saving,” she said.

“They literally did a cost benefit analysis. They looked at the amount of money each family made. At the time, my husband was making about $10,000 a year. I was a stay at home mom. They said it was going to cost $20 million to clean it up. They did their cost benefit analysis and said it did not work,” she said.

“Christie and his lackies have made the same decision here. I’m Irish Catholic. I get mad, and I did get mad,” she said.

Gibbs said she and her fellow neighbors did their own health survey, and discovered that 56 percent of the children born in the neighborhood were born with some type of birth defect.

“We had children with three ears, and extra toes. Women were having miscarriages in the town. We went to the New York State Department of Health. We told them to check it out. We organized politically. We dogged the governor (then Gov. Hugh Carey) all across the state,” she said.

“Any place the governor went, we were there. We demanded a study. They did a study. They got the same results we did, but they said it wasn’t related to Love Canal. They actually told us that it was due to a random cluster of genetically defective people,” she said.

“When you leave your home and go to the hospital in the middle of the night because you can’t breathe, they are going to say it’s anxiety. They will never say it’s because of the illegal dump up the street,” she said.

“We got ourselves a lawyer. And we found some science people. You need geeky science people. Science is a tool, but make no mistake, this is a political struggle. You will win the battle to remove the dump if you fight it politically. Take your story everywhere the governor goes. Get in Christie’s face, and I mean that literally,” she said.

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