Beach Books

Toms River: Legacy of Environmental Crime

By MARY WALTON | Apr 18, 2014

Editor’s Note: On April 14, Dan Fagin won the Pulitzer prize in the general nonfiction fiction category for his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, reviewed last August in The SandPaper’s sister publication, The Beachcomber. The Pulitzer was awarded to “a distinguished and appropriately documented book of nonfiction by an American author.” The New York Times called it "a new classic of science reporting." The book review follows.

So this is the story.

In 1949, a Swiss-owned company named Ciba steals into rural Toms River and scarfs up 1,360 acres of piney woodland, then builds a dye-making plant on 35 acres hidden from public view. Doing business as Toms River Chemical Corporation, over the next four decades the company regurgitates many millions of gallons of toxic waste, dumping it first into unlined pits where it seeps through sandy soil into the aquifer that feeds the town’s water supply, and then into the nearly pristine Toms River, another water source. The river’s natural tea-color temporarily masks the pollution. When finally forced to desist, Ciba seeks and receives permission to build a 10-mile pipeline to the ocean. (Thank you, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)

How many millions of gallons of toxic waste escape? A lot. Two million gallons a day in the mid 1950s, five million in the mid 1970s.

Though the biggest Toms River polluter, Ciba is not alone. Union Carbide, 60 miles away in Bound Brook, looks the other way when an enterprising waste hauler volunteers to cart off thousands of drums of deadly waste, many of them leaking, and deposit them next to the Ciba property.

By the early 1990s, when it shuts down dye-making and morphs into Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, the river is contaminated, the town’s water supply is tainted, thousands of lungs have inhaled questionable residues, countless pairs of stockings have melted on the legs of female office workers, beachfront communities are furious over the ocean dumping, and dozens of children have been felled by leukemia, brain tumors and other forms of deadly cancer. The company has been penalized with a record-setting $1,450,000 fine and three of its executives have been charged with engaging in a criminal conspiracy.

Slowly unfolding over many years in a New Jersey backwater, these events never drew the media attention of Love Canal, the New York neighborhood situated atop a chemical dump site that was so contaminated 221 families were evacuated. The Toms River catastrophe does not make Wikipedia’s list of top environmental disasters. But gathered by journalist Dan Fagin into one compelling volume, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Bantam Press), the company’s misdeeds are an appalling saga of corporate evildoing.

“In Toms River,” writes Fagin, a former environmental reporter for Newsday, who now teaches at New York University, “the company could operate as if the past had never happened and the future never would.”

The past began in 1856 with the chance discovery by an 18-year-old British chemistry student named William Henry Perkin that coal tar, a by-product of coal carbonization or gasification, could be used to make a rich, purple dye reminiscent of the glorious Tyrian purple that Caesar was wearing when he was slain by Brutus. That was the beginning of a chemical revolution that eventually produced aniline dyes in every hue. The Swiss were the first to exploit the new process, followed by the Germans.

Grateful for the arrival of well-paying industrial jobs and a seemingly model corporate citizen, the New Jersey natives were largely unaware that Ciba (eventually Ciba- Geigy), had fled Cincinnati, its American base since 1920, when the city began cracking down on polluters who had turned the Ohio River into a toxic brew.

Toms River offered cover. Writes Fagin, “No matter how large the company grew – and by the 1970s there would be twenty-two buildings, five waste lagoons, and more than a dozen dumps on the property –passersby would see nothing but the front gate and a solid wall of pine and oak.”

The story has heroes. “There were hippies in Rose Donato’s kitchen,” begins a colorful chapter on the efforts of Greenpeace volunteers to plug the ocean pipeline and generate publicity.

There is Don Bennett, a reporter for the Ocean County Times-Observer, who exposed Ciba for channeling wastes from outside companies through its ocean pipeline, in violation of its permit. (The tip came from his mother, who got it at her beauty parlor.) That transgression and others Bennett uncovered forced his readers, many of them Ciba employees, to discard their blinders and confront the price they had paid for denial.

Another hero, Linda Gillick, whose son was born in 1979 with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system, founded Oceans of Love, ministering to sick kids, and crusaded tirelessly to bring Ciba to justice.

In the final third of the book, with Gillick among the leaders, townspeople and conscientious bureaucrats seek the cancer cluster designation that will empower families with afflicted children to sue for compensation. So detailed is this section that when the book ends on page 462, you may conclude that the author never encountered a case control study or dose response pattern he didn’t like.

Fagin rejoices in scientific investigation. But he does readers a disservice by repeatedly interrupting the book’s suspenseful narrative with digressions on the history of cancer research; while relevant, they should have been boiled down to a single account leading in to the cancer cluster finale.

But he is determined to cover every aspect of this scary history, and does so brilliantly. Given that heavily industrialized New Jersey has the nation’s most Superfund toxic waste sites (Toms River had two), it is the rare Garden State reader who will not wonder just how safe is the water from the kitchen tap.

Mary Walton is the author of A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle of the Ballot. She began her journalism career as an environmental reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.