This week, Dan Fagin—university professor, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and past-president of the Society of Environmental Journalists—released a new book titled “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.” This book tells the story of Toms River, New Jersey, and the town’s decades-long struggle with pollutants and polluters.
In 1952, the Toms River Chemical Plant began operating in the town, starting a long and notorious run of producing industrial dyes and resins. But, along with the dyes and resins, the factory produced what the book jacket describes as a “sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary example for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to South China.”
The book describes the scientists, doctors, and everyday townspeople that helped bring the town to the attention of regulators and investigators. It took much longer than it should have for the town’s now infamous cluster of childhood cancers—linked to local pollution—to come to light and be properly addressed.
In 1983, the EPA finally designated the area a so-called “superfund site,” providing authority to the federal government to help clean up the area and protect it. The plant eventually closed down in 1996. Since then, tests have shown that rates of cancer have normalized in the area, and fallen to near statewide levels. The water in the town is now subject to very strict testing. And, in 2001, the litigation surrounding the pollution resulted in one of the largest settlements in the history of toxic dumping.
For the families who suffered, these remedies likely do not make up for the losses already incurred. But hopefully, the story of Toms River will prove itself to indeed be a cautionary tale for areas around the country—and help dissuade potentially polluting businesses from causing harm to nearby residents.