For Toms River, An Imperfect Salvation

Originally published on March 25, 2013 2:03 pm

In 1953, the Swiss chemical company Ciba came to Toms River, N.J. By all accounts, the community was delighted to have it. The chemical plant for manufacturing textile dye brought jobs and tax revenue to the small town on the Jersey shore. The company invested in the town's hospital and donated land for a golf course.

The arrangement was good for Ciba, too. Its manufacturing process created far more wastewater than it did actual dye, and it needed somewhere to dump the water. It went into sandy holding ponds and into the Toms River, for which the town was named. Other chemical plants up the road were doing the same with their waste, dumping it rather than paying to ship it away.

Then, nearly two decades after Ciba first came to town, a cancer epidemic was identified in the community. Dan Fagin, the director of the science, health, and environmental reporting program at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, chronicled the community's fight for answers in his new book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Fagin talks to Don Gonyea, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about the origins of dumping in Toms River and its legacy today.


Interview Highlights

On the origins of illegal dumping in Toms River

"Sharkey and Columbo were the nicknames of two folks who worked at the town landfill, and a person by the name of Fernicola met those two. He had heard that the Union Carbide plant, maybe an hour up the road, had a bunch of old drums of toxic waste, some of them leaking, some of them rusting. And Nick Fernicola said, 'Hey, I've met these guys at the town landfill, and they'll be willing to take the drums.' And that was beginning of what became a really serious dumping issue in Toms River."

On one of the first cases of childhood cancer in Toms River

"His father and then his mother noticed very scary things happening with Michael. There were very fast-growing lumps. His eyes on one occasion, actually on several occasions, darted back and forth as if he was watching a metronome. And things happened very fast, and within a week he was having major surgery, and had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma. The doctors told them that Michael had only a 50-50 chance of reaching his first birthday."

On the legacy of Toms River

"I'm very concerned about what's happening now in China, especially outside the major cities. Most of the manufacturing takes place away from the coasts. And the oversight is not what it should be, the regulation is not what it should be, and it's disturbing."

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Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Coming up, new music from country musicians Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.

But first, for two generations, chemical companies dumped toxic waste in the small town of Toms River, New Jersey. The water was poisoned, and some in the community began to get very sick. But the question of who was to blame was far more complicated than anyone expected. Dan Fagin tells the story of the town in his new book, "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." He joins us from New York. Welcome.

DAN FAGIN: Thank you very much. It's good to be with you, Don.

GONYEA: So in 1953, a chemical plant opens in the community. That's the subject of your book. Describe the town back then. And what was the initial reaction to that plant opening?

FAGIN: Well, Toms River was a town like many others. It was sort of in the middle of nowhere, in a way, down on the Jersey Shore. And that was one of the reasons that Ciba, this very large chemical producer, decided to come to Toms River in the first place. There was plenty of space and plenty of room for privacy and plenty of land to get rid of their waste.

GONYEA: And once the plant was established, it seems like very quickly, it became, again, one of those classic company towns where business and politics were just intertwined.

FAGIN: That is absolutely true. The company did a lot for Toms River, at least in the short run. Folks from Ciba started a hospital. They donated the land for the golf club. They were on the boards of the United Way. They were really pillars of the community, even if they were not exactly of the community because they were Swiss. And people in Toms River in the main were thrilled to have them there.

GONYEA: The chemical plant went on to produce many products over the years, but the very first product was something called vat dye, very popular and effective at dying fabrics, vivid colors, didn't fade. But what was it about the manufacture of that product?

FAGIN: Well, that product was a very effective dye, but it also generated an absolutely astonishing amount of waste - far, far more waste than actual product. And that was key to the company being in Toms River. They- it was essential for them to have plenty of land to get rid of this massive amount of wastewater, and especially to have a water source nearby where they could do their discharges.

GONYEA: So in the book, you write about what happens to the dye, what happens to the waste. Could you read that passage for us?

FAGIN: This is about their plans for Toms River in the early 1950s when they first came to town. Shipping out the finished dye would be simple enough - trucks and freight cars - a spur from the Central Railroad of New Jersey ran right up the production buildings - would cart it off to textile plants in the Carolinas and New England.

But Ciba was not about to give the same treatment to the much greater quantities of toxic waste it would produce at Toms River. To cart it all to an offsite landfill would be very costly, and the company's plans to catch up to DuPont and its other competitors left no room for unnecessary expense. The dye would leave Toms River, but the waste would stay.

GONYEA: So you're not talking about a company that's trying to hide this dye or even necessarily circumvent laws or anything here. It was just too expensive to haul it out.

FAGIN: Yeah, that's right. That was the decision that they made. And at the time, it was perfectly legal.

GONYEA: There's a chapter called Sharkey and Columbo at the Rustic Acres. Who are they, and what is this lovely sounding place, Rustic Acres?

FAGIN: Well, the Rustic Acres is a bar, kind of a legendary bar in Toms River, that no longer exists. Sharkey and Columbo were the nicknames of two folks who worked at the town landfill, and a person by the name of Fernicola met those two. He had heard that the Union Carbide plant, maybe an hour up the road, had a bunch of old drums of toxic waste, some of them leaking, some of them rusting, and they wanted to get rid of them.

And Nick Fernicola said: Hey, I've met these guys at the town landfill, and they'll be willing to take the drums. And that was the beginning of what became a really serious dumping issue in Toms River.

GONYEA: So let's talk about what started to happen in the community, what people started noticing. You tell a lot of personal stories. One of the most heart-wrenching is that of Michael Gillick. He was born, you write, in 1979. He was a happy, beautiful, cherubic baby for the first three months of his life. Then, at three months, he starts showing some very, very strange, very scary symptoms. What was going on?

FAGIN: His father, and then his mother, noticed very scary things happening with Michael. There were very fast-growing lumps. His eyes, on one occasion - actually, several occasions, darted back and forth as if he was watching a metronome. And things happened very fast, and within a week, he was having major surgery and had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

The doctors told them that Michael had only a 50-50 chance of reaching his first birthday. But Michael surprised everyone, and he's now in his 30s and is very much the activist in Toms River, along with his mother, Linda.

GONYEA: Another important character was a nurse, Lisa Boornazian. What was Lisa's role in all of this?

Lisa was at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. She was a very devoted nurse. And she noticed that a lot of kids seemed to be coming from Toms River, and she wanted to know what was going on. And her sister-in-law, Laura Janson, happened to work for the Environmental Protection Agency, and Laura knew who to call.

FAGIN: Finally, in 1995, the New York State Department of Health did a true cluster analysis and concluded that, hey, there really were an unusual number of childhood cancer cases on Toms River. Even that didn't end the story because the state was alarmed by what it had found. They weren't sure what they wanted to do with that information.

And it wasn't until the story hit the papers in 1996 that Toms River exploded into a national story, and a huge epidemiological study eventually got going, the lawyers got involved, and this became a huge thing.

GONYEA: The book is called "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." What's the salvation?

FAGIN: Well, I have to say that it's an imperfect form of salvation. But eventually, the families got a heck of a lot of information about what really happened. And information, I think, in many ways, is what they were ultimately looking for. They also got a legal settlement that was not perfect. It certainly doesn't make up for losing a child. Nothing could. But it was reasonably lucrative. We think it was worth somewhere around $30 or $35 million divided among about 70 families.

GONYEA: You end the book, though, going overseas to China and looking at another potential Toms River.

FAGIN: I do. I'm very concerned about what's happening now in China, especially outside the major cities. Most of the manufacturing takes place away from the coasts. And the oversight is not what it should be. The regulation is not what it should be. And it's disturbing that on the Internet today in China, there's a lot of talk of cancer villages, a lot of amateur epidemiology under way.

And we can only hope that the fact that the Internet exists now and that we have lots of information exchange will help the Chinese avoid the mistakes that we have made because the information is out there. We know what happened, and we know how it can be avoided.

GONYEA: Dan Fagin is a science writer and journalist. His book is "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." Dan, thanks so much.

FAGIN: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.