On a cold and windy winter morning, members from Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick stood in a spot along the Raritan River in an area once so polluted it was off-limits to pedestrians for many years.
And yet they were able to walk along a well-paved path to a new gazebo in what is now a recreational area.
Behind them, in the Edison Boat Basin, was the Lyondell Basell chemical plant, still in operation, which had contributed to the pollution. Across the river they could see the former Kin-Buc Landfill, where tons of hazardous waste was dumped between 1947 and 1976 before the state forced its closure, citing violation of anti-pollution laws.
Kin-Buc would become one of the largest Superfund sites in New Jersey — the state with the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the number of such uncontrolled hazardous waste sites targeted for clean-up by the federal government.
The Edison location was one of several stops temple members made Dec. 24 on a tour of area Superfund sites as part of the synagogue’s “green mitzva day.” The Superfund was established by Congress in 1980 and is funded through fines levied on polluters and taxes paid by oil companies.
The group was accompanied by Rabbi Rebecca Soliellel Epstein and led by the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of Greenfaith, a statewide interfaith organization promoting environmental awareness in the religious community.
“No one in New Jersey lives more than 10 minutes from a Superfund site,” Fletcher told the group members. “That should give you reason for pause.”
Exposure to contaminants and pollution has been identified as a cause of cancer, respiratory diseases, and other health issues, he said.
Earlier that morning they stopped at the “Triple C Ranch” in the Dismal Swamp, a former horse farm in Edison reclaimed as an educational facility that is now visited by school groups and other community members, after thousands of pounds of contaminated soil was removed.
Administered by the Edison Wetlands Association, its supervisor Diana Lentzsch showed temple members around as they petted friendly goats, watched clucking chickens, and peeped at “Charlotte the pig” asleep in a comfy enclosure. Pointing to a pond, Lentzsch said in warmer months it teems with frogs and turtles.
Fletcher said the swamp’s name was indicative “of the low value people long ago placed on swamps”; today, he added, wetlands are recognized as an invaluable repository of plant species and wildlife.
Hikers and birdwatchers regularly come to view the 180 species of birds and two dozen other mammals, reptiles, and amphibians living there.
However, with ice crunching beneath their feet and dense trees surrounding them, congregants walked along a path lined on both sides by barbed-wire fencing displaying signs prohibiting entry to still-contaminated areas.
In South Plainfield, the group’s bus pulled alongside the Cornell Dubilier Electronics plant, where from behind a fence they watched as the Army Corps of Engineers supervised burning highly contaminated soil surrounding the facility.
Rebecca Goldberg and her 15-year-old son, Zach, of South Plainfield had joined the group out of concern about the proximity of the plant.
“What impact is it having on all of our well-being?” asked Rebecca. “It’s really sad that it was ignored for so long and allowed to grow to this magnitude.”
Barbara Peabody of South Brunswick said she was shocked to learn there were so many Superfund sites “right in our own backyard.”
“This day was an extraordinary experience,” she said. “It has really inspired me to want to get involved. We need to work to educate the public to stimulate them to get involved.”