NJDEP

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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Lecture Review – “The Garden State or Cancer Alley?” by Thomas Belton

Thomas Belton took a pretty eclectic career path on his way to becoming an environmental historian. After receiving a degree in classical languages he ended up working on telephone poles. Following that endeavor, he returned to school with the intent of becoming a doctor. At the time he took an elective class in ornithology. The choice proved rather adventitious as it inspired his interest in the ecology. Once he received his degree in marine biology he made environmental studies his full time pursuit. He landed a job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection working in their Science and Research division. 2010 marked the time when he could add the task of environmental historian to his resume. At that time Rivergate Books published his tome Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the Garden State. Mr. Belton added lecturer to his list of careers when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown this March 14th. At the Moorestown Library he delivered an address called “The Garden State of Cancer Alley?” based on his book.

Mr. Belton shared a number of vignettes from his career as an environmental scientist. He discussed his participation in a veritable “detective story” that entailed “using science in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way.” He participated in a study to answer why large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were entering Camden’s water supply. Using tools such as Graphic Information Studies he and his team managed to identify them coming from one location in the city.

The speaker explained the significance of PCBs in non-scientific jargon. These chemicals are a known carcinogen. Even the US government recognized their danger. He noted in his book they became the first chemical ever banned by Congress. (Page 38) Mr. Belton spent a good part of his lecture describing his efforts to identify their presence in bluefish off the New Jersey coast then tracing their source. Following that he participated in issuing Fish Public Health Advisories. From this experience, he learned how to explain scientific concepts to lay people through his work with the department’s public relations office.

Because of the study, within five years a ban was placed on offshore dumping. Prior to that, this sort of “dilution is the solution” mentality justified the common practice of dumping sewage and sludge in the ocean.

The provenance of the book’s subtitle comprised part of his remarks. A study showed a large number of people with cancer along the Route One corridor; a stretch of highway extending roughly from Philadelphia to New York City. The finding gave rise to the term “cancer cluster.” The search for an explanation to this phenomenon led to the speaker’s analysis of PCBs in bluefish.

An unintended consequence resulted from one of one of his research projects. Out of curiosity, he investigated whether air pollution in Philadelphia affected the pinelands. Working with an expert in fungi, he determined that it did result in acid rain that fell in the region. These results led to his being called as an expert witness in a lawsuit against businesses in the Ohio River Valley.

The Historical Society really should have scheduled this speaker closer to Halloween. I found many of his remarks absolutely horrifying. He described chromium waste sites in Jersey City while discussing the Brownfield Regulations. For those unfamiliar with the chemical, an oozing green slime indicates its presence. In his discussion of Superfund sites, he explained that many received “temporary” clean-ups over a decade ago. They still require permanent detoxification. The funds are not forthcoming. The “Arsenic and Old Lakes” conclusion of his lecture centered on a topic not covered in his book. It described the environmental repercussions from a pesticide factory that began operation in South Jersey back in 1949. As of 2015, $100 million had been spent to clean up the site. The work still needs to be completed.

I did take some solace in Mr. Belton’s explanation of New Jersey’s environmental reputation. When Superfund became law, states such as New Jersey, Vermont and California took advantage of the opportunity it presented. They cataloged their hazardous sites. In essence, the Garden State earned an unfair reputation for pollution because it made a serious effort to rectify this problem.

Mr. Belton certainly pursued many careers during his time. In fact, he recently added that of award winning author when the New Jersey Council of Humanities named Protecting New Jersey’s Environment an Honor Book in 2010.While I haven’t observed him in his other capacities, I compliment him for his stellar work as an environmental historian and lecturer. Because of his performance, he can add another job to his repertoire. His remarks piqued my curiosity about our environment so much, that I purchased his book. Mr. Belton makes a pretty good salesman, too.