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Toms River: Pollution and its cancerous wake

The story of chemical waste and its tragic consequences in the town of Toms River, New Jersey.

This is an excerpt from the book "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation."  Copyright © 2013 & 2015 by Dan Fagin. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.©

The river ran low during the parched summer of 1965, the driest in Ocean County in a century. It was so low that about one-sixth of the flow under the Route 37 bridge originated not as rain or groundwater but as wastewater discharged by the Toms River Chemical Corporation two miles upstream.

Below the factory’s outfall pipe, the river was tinted and frothy, and a strange dark-brown fungus clung to its banks.

The stench was obnoxious, but that was nothing new. The Toms had stunk for the previous four summers, too. What was new was that the odor no longer came solely from the river and the waste lagoons at Toms River Chemical.

When residents of the nearby Oak Ridge neighborhood turned on their kitchen taps, they could smell it in their household water now too—the water that was piped to them by the Toms River Water Company, which operated three shallow wells (two newly dug) beside the river on Holly Street, two and a half miles downstream from the factory.

The first people to make the connection between the malodorous tap water and Toms River Chemical were plant employees, many of whom lived in Oak Ridge. For them, the smell was nauseatingly familiar.

They knew it from the factory’s own drinking fountains, which drew from company wells that had been tainted with dye wastes since the mid-1950s. Almost no one drank from the fountains at Toms River Chemical—not more than once, anyway—and now the familiar smell was in their water at home, too.

Jim Crane, the company’s manager of chemical engineering, lived in the neighborhood and was among the first to notice the odor at home, while taking a shower on a scorching July day in 1965. It must have been a supremely frustrating lavation for Crane; he had been trying to cope with an escalating series of pollution problems at the plant ever since 1959, when the production lines for azo dyes and resins shifted to Toms River.

Crane had no special training in environmental matters; he had supervised DDT manufacturing in Cincinnati, and his main job at Toms River was to make the manufacturing process as efficient as possible.

Because Toms River Chemical had no environmental department, however, coping with the manifold consequences of the plant’s burgeoning waste discharges was an unwelcome part of Crane’s portfolio.

The Swiss had hoped that dilution would mask its pollution of the Toms River, just as they had hoped it would in the Rhine and the Ohio. But the natural flow of the Toms averaged just 120 million gallons per day (about five hundred times less than the Ohio) and dropped to only about thirty-six million gallons when the weather was hot and dry. That was not nearly enough volume for significant dilution.

Toms River Chemical was now not only discharging five million gallons of wastewater directly into the river every day, it was also withdrawing at least five million gallons of clean upstream water to cool equipment (among other purposes) before returning it to the Toms. This “cooling water” picked up nitrobenzene and other chemicals during its labyrinthine journey through the plant. In addition, another two hundred thousand gallons of chemical-laced groundwater flowed off the property every day and seeped into the river through its sandy banks. The feeble stream was simply overwhelmed by the deluge of industrial waste.

Signs of distress appeared almost immediately after full-scale production of azo dyes began in 1960. Unexpectedly high bacteria counts in the factory effluent (probably from sewage) forced the company to start adding chlorine to the wastewater, which increased the “medicine” odor in the Toms River.

On one hot summer day in 1960, the chlorinator broke down and bacteria counts spiked in the river, forcing the closure of several bathing beaches miles downriver. The following spring, Crane warned his bosses that “this could be very obnoxious during swimming season”—and it was. That summer, inspectors from the state Division of Fish and Game paid the first of many visits to the factory.

After accompanying the inspectors to view the brown fungus below the outfall pipe, a company manager, Al Meier, wrote a candid memo to his superiors. “As much as I personally enjoy swimming in fresh water, I would not swim in the waters below our plant effluent even if I were paid a reasonable sum,” he wrote, adding that he expected the state agency to soon launch a formal investigation. “I feel that we are constantly skirting on the thin edge regarding our waste water treatment problems,” he concluded.

By the summer of 1963, Toms River Chemical was over that thin edge. After the local papers published reports of dead fish floating in the river, organized opposition to the company appeared in town for the first time, in the form of a new group called the Ocean County Fish & Game Protective Association. The group blamed the factory discharges for killing marine life, including perch and flounder found covered with sores seven miles downstream. The group found allies in one of the local papers, the Ocean County Sun, which publicized the fish kills, and in Philip Maimone, a developer who also owned a Cadillac dealership. Back in 1949, Maimone had sold Ciba most of the land for its factory complex. He still owned more than six hundred acres of riverfront property and now protested that the company’s pollution was wrecking his investment.

Whether Toms River Chemical was really responsible for fish kills occurring miles downstream was unknowable, but there was no doubt that almost nothing could live in its undiluted effluent—especially during hot summers. Gill-breathing fish cannot survive without dissolved oxygen, but carbon-based liquid waste—including sewage and organic chemicals—contains microorganisms that are voracious consumers of dissolved oxygen. The bad news for local fish, and local fishermen, was that bacteria and other microbes thrived in Toms River Chemical’s effluent. By the summer of 1963, microbes downstream from the factory outfall were consuming oxygen at a rate more than ten times higher than in the unpolluted upstream stretches and more than three times higher than state rules allowed. The “BOD” rate, for biochemical oxygen demand, was equivalent to a city of thirty thousand people dumping their raw sewage into the river....

Company reaction

Facing something new and deeply disconcerting—public criticism—company managers decided, for the first time, to acknowledge publicly what had been obvious for years to anyone in town with a working sense of smell: Toms River Chemical had fouled the iconic river that lent its name to the town and the company. This time, there were no absurd claims that the factory’s effluent had somehow improved the quality of the river water. Instead, the general manager of the factory (by now it was a Swiss national named Robert Sponagel) acknowledged that “at times our wastes add color and medicinal odors” to the river.

He said that the company was considering building a “chemical recovery plant” to reduce its pollution but made no promises that it would eliminate odors and discoloration. Reminding reporters of the company’s annual payroll of $8 million (about $56 million in today’s dollars), Sponagel added, “If the responsible people of this area want a prosperous community with continuing growth, we must realize there will be changes in our natural surroundings. Very few of us are willing to live like the Indians, in spite of our idyllic dreams.”

Many in Toms River seemed inclined to agree with him. Only the old-timers remembered when the river was clean and the fishing abundant, but they also remembered when land was all but worthless and the moribund local economy subsisted on egg farming and a few summer beachgoers from Philadelphia. Now land prices were soaring, and the economy was expanding almost as rapidly as Toms River Chemical’s workforce, which by 1964 was nearly twelve hundred strong. Certainly the State of New Jersey showed no inclination to spoil the party.

State officials not only failed to enforce the terms of their own discharge permits (which banned “detectable odors,” among many other ignored provisions), they actively advised Toms River Chemical on how to stymie its critics—encouraging the company to adopt a policy of “complete silence” because its news releases “are only agitating people and supplying them with information.”

A senior state environmental official, Robert Shaw, gave voice to the state’s overall attitude in a frank newspaper interview in 1963: “If anyone believes that New Jersey will remain what it was years ago, whether in regard to population, open spaces or streams or any other environmental factor, he fails to appreciate what’s going on in New Jersey.”

Ciba, Geigy, and Sandoz understood what was going on in New Jersey. Their investment in Toms River Chemical was paying off, and they saw no reason to tamper with a good thing. America’s love affair with bright colors—a passion with cultural antecedents stretching all the way back to Heracles’ mythic discovery of Tyrian Purple on the Levantine shore—was in full swoon.

Back in 1960, Toms River Chemical sold slightly more than a million dollars’ worth of dyes and other products per month. By 1964, monthly sales had topped four million dollars, and production was also at a record level: more than five million pounds per month. Toms River Chemical was now the second-largest producer of epoxy resins in the United States and the fifth-largest dye maker.

As for the consequences of this frenetic growth, Jim Crane described them in a confidential memo to Robert Sponagel and other senior managers in 1965. Effluent from the plant, he wrote, was coloring the river water for eight miles downstream. Azo compounds and nitrobenzene could be measured in the water and in bottom mud all the way to Barnegat Bay. Yet there was no sign that Toms River Chemical was changing its practices.

The “chemical recovery plant” Sponagel had discussed back in 1963 still did not exist; the company was still handling its solid and liquid wastes in essentially the same primitive fashion it had chosen when the plant opened in 1952. The only significant changes were that the wastes were more toxic now due to the addition of azos and resins to the product stream, and the volume had more than tripled.

From a business perspective, the company’s unwillingness to take action to curb its pollution made sense. Almost any step Toms River Chemical could have taken to reduce its discharges would have cut directly into its profits. Building an entirely new waste-handling system, one that would cost millions of dollars in capital and yearly operating costs, would have required shutting down the plant for months. To the Swiss, that was unthinkable. Their resistance to any shutdown stiffened after a brief strike at the plant in October of 1964 cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost production.

Even smaller cleanup actions that might have saved the company money in the long run were given low priority out of fear that they would slow the manufacturing process. Jim Crane tried unsuccessfully for years to convince supervisors to recapture and reuse expensive and very hazardous production chemicals like epichlorohydrin and nitrobenzene; instead, thousands of pounds of those chemicals every day were spilled or dumped into factory drains that led to the lagoons and eventually the river.

But Crane did not strike out completely in his pleas for Toms River Chemical to do something, anything, to clean up the river. Starting in early 1964, he and others in the company began pushing an audacious idea that promised to eliminate the factory’s river pollution problems—the visible ones, anyway—in one fell swoop.

If it worked, Toms River Chemical would no longer have to deal with angry fishermen or disgruntled neighbors; their complaints of tinted, smelly river water and dead or strange-tasting fish would go away virtually overnight. Best of all, from the company’s point of view, this new idea was a bargain, which is why Robert Sponagel and his bosses in Basel were willing to consider it. In their eyes, it was a much better option than the only realistic alternative, which was to build an activated sludge treatment plant that would have cost at least $2.5 million plus another $250,000 a year in operating costs and—most importantly—would have required closing down the factory for weeks or months.

Their big idea was to bypass the river by building a ten-mile pipeline to carry all of Toms River Chemical’s wastewater—about five million gallons per day and growing—to the Atlantic Ocean. The pipe would cost almost $4 million, but the operating costs afterward would be minimal. Most importantly, the company would not have to suspend production or provide any additional treatment to its effluent, which could remain just as toxic, smelly, and tinted as ever.

Sponagel was so enthusiastic about this bold idea that he proposed the pipeline be wide enough (at twenty-eight inches) to handle as much as fifteen million gallons per day—leaving plenty of room for Toms River Chemical to ramp up its own discharges or sell excess capacity to other companies in search of a hassle-free dumping ground.

By today’s standards, dumping minimally treated waste into the coastal ocean seems inconceivable, but it was not at all an outlandish idea in 1965. Many cities around the world, including a half-dozen in northern New Jersey, had been discharging poorly treated sewage into the ocean for years (a few still are today, though typically only after providing higher-level treatment). Even in the 1960s, however, it was rare in the United States for private companies to use ocean outfalls, and the few that did were usually grandfathered by government approvals granted years earlier. Securing permission to build a new one might not be easy.

Executives from Toms River Chemical did not need to worry about their immediate neighbors. Support in Toms River was as reliable as ever, and town officials loved the idea of shifting the pollution elsewhere. But the reception was very different in the beach communities out on the Barnegat Peninsula, where local leaders were livid at the prospect of an industrial waste dump just a half-mile offshore. They were not at all mollified by tests, undertaken by Toms River Chemical, that concluded that the color and odor would be sufficiently diluted to be invisible to beachgoers.

The ever-complaisant New Jersey State Department of Health, which had always given the Swiss whatever they wanted, green-lighted the ocean pipeline in the fall of 1964, leaving only the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the final hurdle. The beach communities appealed to the region’s new congressman, James Howard, a Democrat who had little love for the Republican bosses who played golf with Toms River Chemical executives at the company-owned Toms River Country Club.

Howard convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to delay issuing the permit while the U.S. Public Health Service studied a long list of environmental concerns, including possible impacts on clams and other marine life. The wrangling held up the project for months and continued into the blistering summer of 1965 with no sign of resolution.

As the river fell and the stench worsened during that summer of high heat and record low rainfall, Toms River Chemical’s problems escalated. In July, Philip Maimone, the Cadillac dealer who owned more than six hundred acres downstream from the factory outfall, sued the company for dumping “poisonous and deleterious effluents” into the river. A week later, responding to reports of another fish kill in the river, an inspector from the state Division of Fish and Game visited a site five miles downstream and saw thousands of fish, crabs, and eels “dead, dying or in distress.” The inspector, Bruce Pyle, noted that the fish had died from lack of oxygen and that Toms River Chemical is the “principal source of oxygen depleting matter in the river.” Ever since its first inspection in 1961, the state agency had been warning Toms River Chemical to correct the problem. Now, Pyle wrote his supervisor, it was time to prosecute the company, finally, for destroying fish habitat. It would be an easy case to prove, he predicted.

After fifteen years of operating with impunity, Toms River Chemical was now besieged on multiple fronts. Yet the situation did not appear to be anything the company could not handle. Relatively few people in town were paying close attention to the issue; a much bigger controversy in the local papers during that long, hot summer was whether flying the United Nations flag at town hall was a gesture of international cooperation or “evidence of communist conspiracy,” as one newspaper article put it. Toms River Chemical was still the economic colossus of Ocean County, the engine of the region’s headlong growth. The company had powerful friends, a huge payroll, and a multimillion-dollar revenue stream. It seemed more than a match for Philip Maimone and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Game.

And then Jim Crane smelled chemicals in his shower, and suddenly the company had bigger problems than dead fish and an angry Cadillac salesman.

 Complicity with town water company 

Jim Crane’s discovery that hazardous waste from Toms River Chemical had contaminated the town’s public water supply set off a crisis—but one that was kept secret from the people who drank that water. By mid-August of 1965 the Toms River Water Company knew that azo dye wastes had contaminated three shallow wells (they were about seventy feet deep) that supplied drinking water to almost all of the seven thousand homes and businesses in town that were water company customers. Yet there were no public warnings, no newspaper articles.

Life in Toms River continued as usual except for the unfortunate fact that the weather was so uncomfortably hot and dry that residents drank even more water than usual, even if it sometimes smelled. Just two entities knew what was really happening, and they were old friends used to working together closely and sometimes secretly: the Toms River Water Company and the Toms River Chemical Corporation.

For years, chemists at Toms River Chemical had assisted the water company in analyzing the quality of the town’s drinking water supply, since the expertise of the Swiss-trained chemists far outstripped that of anyone at the little water company, which was struggling to meet the soaring demand. In ten years, its customer base had quadrupled. On hot days, Toms River Water was pumping more than two million gallons from its four wells, three of which were on Holly Street near the river.

Even before Jim Crane smelled chemicals in the shower, water company officials knew something was wrong with at least one of the three Holly wells. According to an internal Toms River Water report dated March 23, 1965, water in one well had such a strong odor and was so visibly contaminated with what the report described as “trade wastes (dye)” that the water company had started adding very large doses of chlorine (so large as to be unsafe by modern standards) to reduce the color.

The dry summer made the situation even worse. Pumping rates rose with the increased summertime demand, as usual, but there was no rain to recharge the underground aquifer. Instead, the Holly wells sucked up more of the polluted river water, which is why, by July, Crane could smell dye wastes in the tap at his Oak Ridge home. He and his staff responded quickly, collecting and testing samples from several water lines in the neighborhood and then, with the water company’s permission, testing the Holly wells.

Two weeks later, in mid-August, Toms River Chemical was ready to tell the water company what its chemists had found: dye chemicals, almost everywhere they looked. Analytical methods were primitive in 1965, but Ciba had been working with aniline dyes for almost a century; its chemists knew how to spot aniline-like molecules in water, even if they could not always distinguish between similar molecules.

In addition to aniline, whose toxicity had been obvious since the industrial poisonings of the 1870s, these similar-looking molecules included benzidine, which had already been implicated as a cause of bladder cancer, and nitrobenzene, the highly toxic “bloodstream” of the vat dye operation. As they tried to determine dye concentrations in the town’s drinking water supply, company chemists devised an overall measurement for what they called “diazotizable amines” because they were components of azo production.

The contamination, the chemists discovered, was severe. Levels of diazotizable amines in the town’s wells and water pipes ranged from five to seventy parts per billion, and later as high as 160 parts per billion. In the 1960s, there were no specific limits for any of those chemicals in drinking water; they were too obscure and difficult to analyze. But by today’s standards, the concentrations were alarming. For benzidine, for example, current Environmental Protection Agency guidelines call for no more than one part per trillion in drinking water—five thousand times less than the lowest concentration of aromatic amines found in Toms River water in 1965.

There was only one way dye wastes could have reached the water supply. The Toms River Chemical Corporation must have discharged them into the river, and the three shallow riverside wells operated by the Toms River Water Company on Holly Street, more than two miles downstream, must have then sucked in the contaminated water, pulling it through the sandy riverbank and into the wells and eventually pumping it to the kitchen taps of seven thousand unsuspecting customers all over town.

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