It’s rare that you get the chance to meet your professional heroes, so when one of mine, former Newsday environmental reporter Dan Fagin, now the director of NYU’s graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, recently came to Hofstra University to give an hour-long talk on his seminal book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” I had to attend.
His 462-page masterwork, published by Bantam, recounts the decades-long history of industrial-waste mismanagement and malfeasance in Toms River, N.J., a seaside community of about 94,000 an hour and a half south of New York City. I read the book shortly after it was published in 2014, and ever since, I had hoped to meet Fagin, now 58, of Sea Cliff.
Toms River is known for its high rate of childhood cancers, in particular leukemia among girls under 5, from the early 1970s through the 2000s. Government reports attribute the spike, at least in part, to the “public health hazards” posed by widespread soil and water contamination at a now-closed Ciba-Geigy chemical plant and a massive, illegal toxic-waste dump at Reich Farm, which has been cleaned up, but only came under consideration for removal from the federal Superfund Site list this year. Both the plant and the dump tainted local drinking-water wells, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.
In “Toms River,” Fagin details the sordid events that spread a witch’s brew of carcinogens among the good people of this otherwise safe community, which has a reputation for patriotism, a vibrant civic culture and a deep love of Little League baseball.
Toms River reminds me of so many Long Island coastal communities — earnest, hard-working, conservative-leaning but not extreme in its political views, inhabited by professionals and blue-collar workers alike. And, as is the case in more than one Long Island community, innocent residents there were forced to cope with an industrial disaster not of their making.
From 2001 to 2005, I reported on Freeport Power Plant No. 2, which for three decades had spewed unfiltered exhaust from its two 13,000-horsepower diesel ship engines into surrounding communities. I walked door to door in the neighborhoods around the plant, asking people whether someone in their homes had had or died of cancer, or whether they knew of any local people stricken by the disease.
In house after house in the Old Lindenmere neighborhood of Merrick, people reported that someone — or multiple people — in their homes had battled cancer or died from it, with many afflicted at young ages. In one case, an entire family of four had succumbed to unusual cancers.
I could never call the neighborhood a “cancer cluster,” a designation that required confirmation through years of study to determine whether the cancer cases people reported were a random pattern — an accident of nature, if you will — or were tied to an industrial pollutant such as diesel exhaust, found by scientists to be among the most carcinogenic substances in the world.
I worried about my reporting: Was I unnecessarily scaring people? Once I had begun, however, I quickly realized I couldn’t stop until the plant was shut down. Otherwise, residents would have lived in constant fear, and many potential homebuyers might have avoided the area, depressing housing prices. I wrote 44 stories, and thanks largely to then State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr., Long Island Power Authority Chairman Richard Kessel, and Merrick civic activists Joe Kralovich and Bob Young, the plant was closed in March 2002 and replaced in September 2005 by a clean-burning natural-gas plant that included pollution controls. The old plant, grandfathered from the Clean Air Act of 1970 because it was completed in 1969, had none.
I had a question for Fagin: Should journalists pursue such stories through anecdotal reporting, despite the lack of an official cancer-cluster designation? I was heartened by his answer: Journalists mustn’t ignore such stories. We must be honest with our audiences about “the lack of evidence” — that is, the dearth of state and federal data to back people’s assertions — but we should press forward.
Whew! I was hoping he’d say that. Two decades later, I know that pursuing the power plant story was the right thing to do.
On Oct. 22, 2001, I snapped a photo of 9-year-old Tyler Seaman, of Old Lindenmere, clutching two candles at a vigil outside a state public hearing over Plant No. 2’s operating permit. The photo appeared on the front page of the Oct. 25-31 Merrick and Bellmore Heralds, and I included Tyler’s comments from the hearing in the story.
“I am afraid every day that I will not see another day,” he said.
In 2006, Tyler learned he had chordoma, a rare bone cancer that lodges at the base of the skull or in the spine. He died in 2010, at 18.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.