Reflections on the Book Toms River

I’ve finished the book Toms River, about toxic waste dumping in the shore town of Toms River, New Jersey, beginning in the 1960’s and continuing for more than 30 years.  I’ve wondered why there haven’t been more investigations like this, for example in my home town of Kearny, where DuPont likely did the same thing as competitor Ciba Geigy. You have only to look at the swampy area known as the “Kearny meadows” to know that what stagnates there isn’t just water. And I had a number of high school classmates who died quite young of cancer.

The book answers that question. It’s incredibly hard, long and expensive to establish a legitimate cancer cluster, and to prove that the cluster is related to toxic dumping rather than a function of random causes. The search itself creates huge political and societal problems, an unintended consequence of trying to find the truth. Property values are threatened. Tourism, in a town that relies on summer visitors to the shore, is threatened. Business is threatened; who wants to set up shop in a town with a litigious culture? Even within the group perceived as the most affected by the dumping — those who had children with cancer — there were unintended consequences. Not all families were compensated. Among those who were, some got more money than others. The workers at Ciba Geigy, who may have been the most directly harmed as they handled toxic chemicals with their bare hands, weren’t part of the lawsuit at all.

Three more things stood out to me in this densely packed and carefully researched book. One is that the successful Toms River lawsuit depended on a series of fortunate coincidences over many years: people knew people whom they could pressure to become involved. One was a nurse in a children’s hospital who observed that an awful lot of kids from Toms River were coming into the pediatric cancer ward, and wondered what was going on. She wondered aloud to the right person, who knew the right person, who also knew the right person — over time, the battle drew in state and federal public health and environmental protection agencies, epidemiologists, investigative journalists, lots of lawyers, local and state elected officials, community activists. But the random early connections, made at just the right time, meant the difference between a successful effort and one that might have fizzled out and faded from view. Not every community can expect to be so lucky.

Second, the activist group that started to draw attention to the toxic dumping, over time morphed into a number of groups with slightly different interests — ultimately the most powerful and enduring seems to have been the group representing the families of children with cancer.

Finally, there is this thought: the way corporations say “I’m sorry” ultimately comes down not to justice or forgiveness, but to money — and an uneven distribution of money at that. For the families and activists who originally said “It’s not about the money”, and who wanted a clear and firm acknowledgment that children and families had been wronged, there was disappointment and frustration. In the end, it was about settlement money. That is how these things end.

Once again, I highly recommend this book. You may not have any connection with Toms River, New Jersey. But we all live under a political administration doing everything it can to roll back the kinds of protections put in place after debacles like Toms River. We think, as intelligent people, that once something like Toms River is exposed it will never happen again. Under Trump’s EPA, it can absolutely happen again.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Book Toms River

  1. for Katie: I found the Toms River situation particularly fascinating because my home town of Kearny had a similar situation with DuPont, but no investigation of their dumping. My classmate, Stephanie Wauters, who formed one of the first activist groups in Toms River, was recognized by our college with their highest award for her efforts. Much deserved.

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