NJIT students explore Newark as a habitat

by Andaiye Taylor

critical issues cardIt’s a fact that can be easy to lose sight of, but that’s obvious when one takes even a moment to think about it: “the environment” isn’t only the rainforest or the marshlands or the savannah, it’s everywhere, including cities like Newark that are comprised of bricks, glass and steel.

It’s urgent that we think about where we live as every bit the habitat that it is. The health of our environment affects the health of people who live here — children in particular — and communities like Newark tend to take the brunt of environmental injustices as the sites of incinerators, exhaust, mowed over green spaces and poisoned water.

It was with that thought in mind that a class of 22 NJIT journalism students, under the guidance of journalist and professor Miriam Ascarelli, decided to create a virtual environmental tour of Newark, in this case with a focus on the Ironbound. A presentation by Nancy Zak and subsequent bus tour with Drew Curtis, both of the Ironbound Community Corporation, helped the students make sense of the specific issues — and opportunities — facing the neighborhood. (The students had always planned to explore environmental issues in the Ironbound, and hadn’t originally planned to explore the neighborhood’s culture, as an earlier version of this introduction stated.)

The project below won the first prize in the Dirty Little Secrets student reporting contest, which focused on environmental issues in Newark (disclosure: I was a contest judge).

Here are a few highlights from their work. Read their full reporting using the interactive map below, which is also mobile-friendly.

  • Residents of the Terrell Homes have had to fight a three-front environmental justice battle over the years: storage containers blocking their view of the Passaic River (now removed), dangerously high levels of lead, and damage to boilers due to Hurricane Sandy.
  • The Triangle Park project proposal includes plans for an elevated skyway, similar to New York City’s Highline, which will reclaim abandoned railroad tracks as a pedestrian space.
  • Remnants of the Newark-New York railroad, long defunct, can be seen on Broad Street in the form of the facade of the old station. Other vestiges of the line, which ran from Broad Street, through the Ironbound, and into New York City, also remain scattered between downtown and Down Neck. One of those vestiges is set to be repurposed into a pedestrian bridge that will connect the Ironbound with the Prudential Center.
  • The Aerofarms vertical farm under construction in the Ironbound will be a bastion of research and innovation with potentially far-reaching consequences for food security and the environment. The farm also plans to reach deep into the community by employing local residents, supplying local restaurants, and being part of the revitalization of its neighborhood.
  • Ironbound Stadium was closed in 1986 due to the discovery of high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB. The students’ report explores plans and costs associated with detoxing the field and bringing it back to life.
  • The opening of Riverfront Park in 2012 marked the first time a park in Newark would have direct access to the Passaic River. The students’ report describes the multi-phased plan for continuing to develop more sections of the park, and zooms out to discuss how revitalized waterfronts have been part of the redevelopment plans for other cities.
  • While the park has been a welcome development, the river it abuts is currently a cesspool of pollution due to years of chemical dumping directly into the water, causing critical health problems for the residents who have lived in its wake. The EPA announced their cleanup plans for this stretch of the Passaic River in the spring. Those plans will require some of the very companies who dumped chemicals into the river to kick in funds for the cleanup. But not everyone is happy with the specific cleanup techniques that will be used.
  • One of the five largest incinerators in the state is located in Newark. Property owner Covanta was taken to court in 2010 for violating air quality standards, and as a result had to help foot the bill for Riverfront Park. Separately, the company installed air filters to further reduce emissions in 2012. See correction to original story below.

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The authors of the “Toxic Legacy” interactive feature issued the following correction to the Terrell Homes portion of their story involving actions taken by property owner Covanta. We changed the corresponding bullet point above to reflect this correction.

Our story about the incinerator incorrectly described the settlement agreement that resolved a 2009 lawsuit filed by the Ironbound Community Corp. and other environmental organizations against Covanta Energy, the owners of the Newark incinerator, for air emissions violation.

The 2010 consent decree did, as stated in the story, include an agreement to help fund Riverbank Park, Newark’s first green space along the river. However, the company’s decision to install state-of-the-art “baghouse’’ filters to further reduce emissions was a separate action that occurred in 2012.

Company officials say Covanta’s decision say the decision voluntary and only made possible after the Covanta gained control of the facility from the Port Authority as part of a 2012 agreement with the Port Authority, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Christie administration. Advocates, however, say Covanta would not have agreed to install the filters had it not been for on-going public pressure sparked by the 2009 lawsuit.

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