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News Link • Health and Physical Fitness

How Toxic Dumping Led To Tragedy In A Small Seaside Town

• Dan Fagin via
 The Fernicola brothers, Nick and Frank, grew up in the dirt cowboy subculture of the New Jersey waste industry. Their father, also named Nicholas (his son always went by “Nick” to distinguish them), operated a drum reconditioning business starting in the 1940s on Avenue L in the Ironbound section of Newark, across the street from a slaughterhouse. Even by the standards of that heavily industrialized neighborhood, it was an extraordinarily filthy way to make a living. Nicholas Fernicola specialized in cleaning, repainting, and reselling the 55-gallon steel drums that carried the foulest dregs North Jersey manufacturers could produce. There was no better place than Newark to be in that line of work. It was the “drum capital of the world,” as Frank Fernicola would wistfully describe it years later.

The big money, though, came not from refurbishing waste drums but from making them disappear. Back in the 1960s, when the chemical industry was roaring in North Jersey, the forests and farms in the central part of the state were the equivalent of Sutter’s Mill in 1849 California. The rush was not to pull gold out of the ground but to dump chemical waste into it. Up in Newark, the landfills were expensive and so crowded that the lines of trucks waiting to unload their drums would stretch for blocks. A generation earlier, Ciba had found space and privacy in the deep woods of Ocean County to manufacture dyes and plastics on a massive scale. Now the chemical-waste haulers from Newark, Elizabeth, and Perth Amboy started to follow suit, pointing their big rigs south on Route 9 in search of cheaper dumping grounds. (The Garden State Parkway would have been faster, but trucks were banned north of Toms River.) They found plenty of willing partners among the farmers of Monmouth, Burlington, and Ocean counties. The real estate boom had not yet reached into the rural inland areas of the state, and chickens could not compete with hazardous waste as a cash crop, since farmers typically were paid anywhere from $20 to $50 per drum of waste dumped on their land.

One of the more enterprising landowners was a man named Edward Wilson, who worked for Morton International in the 1950s and 1960s, when the salt maker was broadening its business to encompass chemical manufacture. Wilson offered his family farm in Ocean County’s Plumsted Township as a dumpsite for Morton’s toxic wastes, which included halogenated solvents, chlorinated compounds, volatile organics, and heavy metals. His neighbor, Dayton Hopkins, was even more eager: He let Morton dump on three of his farms, including his family’s own 57-acre homestead. At the worst of those sites, called Goose Farm, drums were tossed into a pit that was 300 feet long and 100 wide.

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