Book Review – Protecting New Jersey’s Environment by Thomas Belton

Environmental policy makes for a very clinical topic. History can read like a very dry subject even to those harboring a profound interest in the subject. One wouldn’t expect a combination of the two to make for an entertaining read. Enter Thomas Belton. He drew on his background in classical languages to craft an engaging book accessible to lay people. Utilizing his training as scientist for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, he crafted a technical analysis of various environmental issues that impacted the state. Applying his skill as a story teller, he crafted a work of history that made for a pleasurable read. He joined these elements together in the form of Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State.

I met Thomas Belton a few weeks ago. I attended an address he delivered based on this book at the Moorestown Library. (See my review of the lecture.) The talk impressed me so much that I purchased a copy of the book that the author signed for me. I informed him that I enjoyed his lecture and looked forward to reading his book. It didn’t disappoint.

Protecting New Jersey’s Environment encompassed a wide array of environmental topics; many of which Mr. Belton had personal involvement with during the course of his career. He reviewed topics ranging from the debate over “cancer clusters”, to the environmental justice movement, to New Jersey’s wildlife and a variety of other subjects.

I found the scope unexpectedly broad for a 230 page book. It also surprised me that the topic of environmental history in just one state could be so wide-ranging. After all, the modern environmental movement didn’t really begin until 1970. At any rate, I do credit the author for bringing together such disparate facets of New Jersey environmental history together in one tome.

As a lifelong South Jersey resident, I enjoyed reading about locations I’m personally familiar with. The author described how “brownfields initiative” provided funds to clean up moderately polluted sites. It allowed for the renovation of the old Victor Records building in Camden, NJ. It also provided the impetus for building of the Salvation Army Ray and Kroc Corps Community Center at Harrison Avenue in the same city.

The best sections of the book contained the author’s personal recollections. Mr. Belton took part in a study that discovered unhealthy quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in several species of fish. In 1982, the New Jersey Department of Health along with the NJDEP issued an advisory regarding their consumption. The author wasn’t lauded for his efforts. He recalled getting “personally” pilloried by the media as “an unprofessional Chicken Little screaming, ‘The sky is falling.’” (Page 47)

I cannot convey how gut wrenching it is to see your professional reputation slandered in the press, to see your competence called into question in the midst of a swirling national debate. However, I did not have the time to worry about it. I had to forget about personal reputation for the moment because the critical issue was that the accuracy of our study was being questioned. And more important from my perspective, the consumption advice we had given the public might be ignored. The advisories were in danger of being drowned out by media sound bites, resulting in a pregnant woman or a nursing mother making an ill-informed choice to eat contaminated fish. (Page 43)

This book contained some extraordinary writing. Mr. Belton expressed many of his ideas poetically. Here’s my favorite passage.

Looking up, I noticed the sunset was a strange reddish-green color, the dim coastline a brown smudge on the horizon. And a weird feeling came over me in my lethargy; a sense that I was hovering high above and looking down at the water’s surface, which had turned to a scrim of crystal glass and the fathoms beneath turned transparent with all the billions of creatures moving about unaware and unconcerned with our passage. And as I dreamed, our boat was flying over this translucent sea, I envisioned the shark and tuna chasing millions of tiny prey fish, which fled in huddled schools, maneuvering to avoid the serrated teeth, and current-borne jellyfish ballooning out in bulging pockets of water to eat phytoplankton, the tiny algae sunning themselves and growing larger with each packet of sunshine that fell into the nurturing water. And all along the bottom, worms slithered and crabs scuttled about, cuttlefish rocketing across the vast sandy spaces, tiny wavelet dunes on the bottom mimicking those ashore, the silent sucking of the planetary currents pulling finless cells into the mouths of filter-feeding sponges and coelenterate anemones who needed them most. (Page 212)

Mr. Belton presented a readable take on the issues effecting New Jersey’s environment. While it covered an array of topics, many of them would be of interest to any resident of the Garden State.

As beautifully as the author expressed his reflections on the sea’s inhabitants in the passage above, the paragraph that followed shifted the mood. Without explicitly doing so, he still summarized the need for books such as Protecting New Jersey’s Environment.  

But I was pulled from this reverie as we entered Barnegat Inlet and drove into the bay beyond, noticing the green and red shroud moving off the land to swallow the sunset was actually photochemical smog—a pea-green soup of particulates, ozone, nitric and sulfuric acid—all the air pollutants refracting the setting sun into its extraordinary color. And this frightened me. Knowing that smog was an airborne killer, a soup of chemicals soon to be deposited on the bay and ocean, absorbed by all the creatures swimming beneath our feet, I was frightened for them, frightened for the people ashore who would eat these poisoned fish, and frightened for the future of the seas as waves of pollutants washed off the continent, mimicking in reverse the ocean waves protecting us ashore. (Page 212)

 

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