By Danielle Bongiovanni
On April 16, 1-STEP and Ramapo Green hosted a virtual screening of The Sacrifice Zone, a documentary on the work of the Ironbound Community Corporation to combat pollution in Newark from industrial sources. Melissa Miles, who was featured in the documentary and currently serves as the Executive Director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, spoke to the audience afterwards.
The documentary began with stunning visuals of Ironbound-Newark residents going about their daily activities while planes from Newark Liberty International Airport flew over an incineration plant emitting ominous smoke. ICC Environmental Justice Director Maria Lopez and ICC Environmental Educator Emily Turonic led the camera crew on a bus tour of the area, pointing out the lack of buffer between the industrial and residential sectors. Within a mile of where people lived was an area nicknamed “Chemical Corridor,” which contained many health risks, including the perpetually-burning Covanta Energy Center.
Most of the documentary hinged on the ICC’s fight against the negative effects the garbage incinerator plant had on residents. The protests were not new. Footage rolled from 1984 when Nancy Zak, who still works with the ICC today, argued against building the incinerator because it would emit cancer-causing air pollutants. Camden and Newark were chosen as the locations of the new plants. These counties were known for being some of the poorest in New Jersey with high minority populations.
Lopez called Ironbound-Newark a sacrifice zone, “a zone that deems these lives don’t matter so much.” Outraged by these environmental injustices, she and other ICC members were working to replace the current dependency on fossil fuels with a regenerative economy.
Representatives from Covanta claimed ICC members had always been hostile. They stated incinerators were better than landfills because they produced less methane, and the energy from burning garbage provided electricity to about 45,000 homes in the surrounding community. Director of Sustainability Mike Van Brunt and Vice President Richard Sandner agreed the community would shut down if the incinerator ceased operating.
ICC representatives combated this argument by citing Covanta’s repeated violations of permit pollution limits and greenwashing campaigns. At the meeting to renew Covanta’s permit to continue operating, one protestor spoke up, “This facility emits more than 600 tons of air pollutants each year.”
Proud of the protests her organization had led against environmental injustices inflicted on marginalized communities, Miles said, “For the first time I felt like my identity was my strength instead of my weakness.”
“I would actually love a future in which my job is irrelevant,” Lopez said toward the end of the documentary. Currently, though, the idea of giving up when there was so much work left to do felt like severing her humanity and giving up on her community. She refused to stop fighting until there was justice.
In closing, the documentary stated Covanta’s permit was still pending based on public health concerns. The fact that it was not automatically renewed could be counted as a victory in itself, as these concerns were mostly raised by the dedicated work of the ICC.
Miles then spoke live to the audience. She explained how the Department of Environmental Protections considered individual facilities rather than the cumulative effects of having several clustered in a small area. Environmental justice activists like her pushed for a new law analyzing the cumulative impacts, which has been passed but is currently undergoing a finalization of the rules.
Miles cited the Black Lives Matter movement as a large source of aid. “Suddenly everyone cared. No one wanted to be on the wrong side of history,” she said.
Miles inspired attendees to join the movement. “Our lived experience is our expertise… you do not need a degree to be an environmental organizer,” she said. They needed to collaborate to build a circular waste economy. “We have to think about the way we design products, we have to think beyond individual responsibility.” Permission to screen The Sacrifice Zone can be purchased online, and the RCNJ library owns a copy. Anyone interested in taking action can get involved with the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), a student-led zero waste movement of which RCNJ is a member.