What Racism Smells Like

Source: The Intercept

Growing up in Newark’s South Ward, Kim Gaddy often struggled to breathe. When her asthma was at its worst and inhaling stung and failed to fill her lungs, she would wind up in the local emergency room. Gaddy spent considerably more time in the ER when her three children were young. They also grew up in the South Ward, where the children’s asthma rate is three times the national average. All of Gaddy’s kids — now 31, 20, and 16 — have asthma too, as did Gaddy’s parents, two of her brothers, and her first cousin, Louie Pigford. Pigford, who lived across Weequahic Park from her, died of asthma when he was in his 40s. So did Gaddy’s brother-in-law, Greg Shaheed Westry, who went to the porch of his house on Newark’s Vassar Avenue one summer night in 2004 hoping to catch his breath and instead collapsed. He died before the ambulance arrived.

Gaddy, who works as an environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action of New Jersey, has spent much of her time since then trying to call attention to the absurd number of polluting plants in her neighborhood. Newark has 930 facilities permitted to release pollution, 87 of which have current violations.

“We have been fighting for clean air for decades,” Gaddy said as she drove slowly through the South Ward on a steamy July morning, past a lot where cars were being noisily flattened by a machine, a factory where plastic was being baled for recycling, and scrapyards filled with mounds of twisted, rusty metal, beyond which you could you could see the faint outline of the Manhattan skyline.

Near the highway overpass on Frelinghuysen Avenue, Gaddy pointed out a streak of oil down the middle of the road, which she said posed a problem during the frequent floods of the area. The persistent oil slick had also caused a few of the elderly people from the nearby public housing development to slip, she said. But even though nearby factories had already come back online as pandemic restrictions were loosened, the streets were largely empty save for one hunched woman slowly wheeling an oxygen cart and a small cluster of masked people gathered outside a methadone clinic.

Even during the pandemic, Newark has seen an increase in permitted pollution. In April, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection expanded the permits of crematoriums so that they can operate around the clock to keep up with the mounting number of coronavirus fatalities. With five of the facilities located just a few miles from her home, Gaddy described the harmful air pollutants they emit as “just another thing to think about when we’re trying the mourn the loss of our family members.”

The sheer number of chemicals and the facilities that emit them has made the fight for clean air in Newark nearly impossible. Gaddy can’t pinpoint blame for her family’s asthma — or for the cancers that have stricken her father and brother — on the fumes from many diesel trucks that roll through her neighborhood on their way to the port because the nearby Superfund sites could play a role. So could Newark Airport and the nearby Covanta incinerator, which burns more than 1 million tons of garbage from New York City and the rest of Essex County and was only recently was fitted with a filter that the company had installed on incinerators in some more affluent New Jersey neighborhoods more than a decade ago. Direct causality in a highly polluted area is almost impossible to prove. Instead, the health problems are almost certainly a result of some combination of the pollutants that plague the area.

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