Zoe Kelman

by Jane Wallace

Zoe Kelman (provided by Zoe Kelman)
Zoe Kelman (provided by Zoe Kelman)

“Would you live next to one of these sites? No.”

For Zoe Kelman that answer was the last straw. Kelman is an environmental engineer. She was asking that question of a Working Group of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The group was entrusted in 2005 to set the cleanup standards for waste sites polluted with a chemical called Chromium 6. Their standards were so weak she was dumbfounded. If her fellow professionals would strand others living next to massive heaps of a probable cancer causing agent, Kelman decided she was working for an agency that refused to do its job.

Photo taken by Seth Wedig for the Star Ledger (http://www.nj.com/njvoices/index.ssf/2009/05/31-week/)
Photo taken by Seth Wedig for the Star Ledger (http://www.nj.com/njvoices/index.ssf/2009/05/31-week/)

When Kelman went to work for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, she took the Protection part very seriously.

“I knew there were people [living around the site] who needed our help, I mean, that’s why you have government. Of course you do the right thing. I guess other people just don't want to do their jobs."

Community Protestors against Chromium 6 Site (http://blog.nj.com/hudsoncountynow_impact/2009/04)
Community Protestors against Chromium 6 Site (http://blog.nj.com/hudsoncountynow_impact/2009/04)

The biggest, most dangerous, Chromium 6 dump was a 17 acre former Chrome processing plant in a densely populated area of Jersey City. The site is owned by a huge corporation, PPG Industries. The field of hazardous waste has been there for 50 years, since the Chromium processing plant shut down in the 1960's. Neighborhood folks say when it rained, the site runoff was the yellow/green color of Mountain Dew. In dry weather, the breeze carried the toxic dust through the chain link fence into their homes. The National Resources Defense Council called it “a community poisoned by indifference”.

“We were breathing death”, said Ellen Wright who lives across the street.

John Witten (http://jclist.com/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?post_id=176754)
John Witten (http://jclist.com/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?post_id=176754)

In 2005,Zoe Kelman decided to become a federal whistleblower. If her agency wouldn’t help these people, she would. She wrote a dissenting opinion to the Working Group on the lame New Jersey standards and offered her expertise to the neighborhood alliance taking PPG Industries to court.

Kelman’s opinion found its way into the newspaper. Her agency’s complete failure to address the probable cancer causing site became public knowledge. Kelman says her boss, Commissioner Lisa Jackson, told her “she didn’t know when to walk away”. She was called a “troublemaker". She was ostracized.

Lisa Jackson and President Obama (Jeff Haynes/Getty)
Lisa Jackson and President Obama (Jeff Haynes/Getty)

With the lawsuit against PPG still in court, in 2008 the National Toxicology Agency finally labeled Chromium 6 a carcinogen. Chromium 6 was no longer a chemical that may or probably caused cancer, it did cause cancer. Chromium 6 now has the dubious distinction of listing among the top cancer causing chemicals in America.

With Kelman’s help, the neighborhood alliance won their lawsuit, twice by 2011. The second win required an even more stringent clean up from PPG. The Corporation is now required to bulldoze and truck away 1.5 million tons of toxic soil from the site, and PPG Industries must give all area residents free cancer screenings. Their winning slogan is plain: More Jobs Less Cancer. The cleanup is expected to cost PPG a billion dollars.

No one is certain how many people in the neighborhood have gotten cancer from this site, never mind how many more got sick while the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection dithered about cleaning it up.

There are an estimated 160 more Chromium 6 sites in Jersey City, and surrounding Hudson County. The deadly chemical was not only left at industrial sites, but, mixed with soil, was dumped all over the county as construction fill as well. The sites are smaller, but the Chromium 6 is just as dangerous.

Zoe Kelman left the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection when they took her off the Chromium cases. Kelman worries that most of the Chromium 6 sites will never get cleaned up unless someone draws attention to each and every one. She is still an active board member of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the National Disease Cluster Alliance. Though she's moved to California with her family, she is never far from untouched Chromium 6 sites in Jersey City.

Lisa Jackson, the boss who told her "she didn't know when to walk away" finally admitted that her New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had failed when it came to toxic waste. In 2009 Lisa Jackson was appointed by President Barack Obama to head of the National Environmental Protection Agency.

Zoe Kelman was appalled. From her point of view, the woman who didn't clean up New Jersey would now be in charge of not cleaning up the whole country. Kelman continues to speak out on environmental issues. Zoe Kelman remains Lisa Jackson's most vocal critic.

In late 2010, Chromium 6 showed up in America's drinking water. According to the Environmental Working Group, Chromium 6 was found in 31 out of 35 states tested.

As head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson promised quick action to address Chromium 6 in our drinking water.

Zoe Kellman will believe it when she sees it.

Related Links

Public Employees Environmental Responsibility - Support for public Whistleblowers/Activism
Natural Resources Defense Council - Environmental News/Activism
Environmental Working Group - Environmental News/Activism
thepumphandlewordpress.com - Environmental News
New Jersey Newspapers - New Jersey Journalism