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.