Jersey County gives workers and residents "right to act" against corporate polluters
Jim Young
May/June 1999

We've faced poison clouds from PCR, night-time emissions from Koppers that nearby residents say make their eyes and throats sore, and now the cement plant--do the public and the workers have the right to know and act? One New Jersey county says "yes."

Last June in Paterson, New Jersey, a toxic cloud drifted from Heterene Chemical Company to a nearby public school, forcing the emergency evacuation of 620 people. Fifty-three students and five adults were hospitalized.

Nearly a year later, a battle has erupted over the legal rights of residents and workers to survey the toxic manufacturing plants they live near and work inside.

In January, Passaic County--home to Heterene and many other corporate polluters--passed the nation's first "right-to-act" law. The measure allows 25 or more neighbors and/or workers to petition the county Health Officer for creation of a Neighborhood Hazard Prevention Advisory Committee to monitor a specific facility. Management and a municipal representative may choose to be on the committee, which will meet regularly to discuss actual and potential hazards, and to make recommendations to management about preventing exposures.

Most important, committees have the authority to conduct walk-through surveys of plant premises, accompanied by technical experts. If a company refuses to cooperate, the county can sue on behalf of the committee.

The Passaic measure has profound implications for workers and communities across the country, since the "right-to-act" is a natural follow-up to numerous local, state, and federal laws giving residents and workers the "right-to-know" about toxic substances. These many laws, though extremely important, have not been enough to clean up dump sites, reduce air emissions, install workplace ventilation systems, or cut back on the use of toxics.

Moreover, the new law tears down the wall of private ownership that polluting corporations often hide behind. Passaic county's 494,000 residents have good reason to be curious about what's inside local plants. Federal data reveals that plants in Passaic County alone produce more production-related waste than nine of the nation's 50 states.

Not surprisingly, the business community is fuming, calling the measure "communistic" and a "back door" strategy for union organizing and threatening lawsuits.

"I don't think there's any other democratic society in the world that allows laws like this," said Jim Sinclair, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "Nobody allows vigilante groups to go into private property."

Industry leaders and their trade associations are fighting behind the scenes to quash rules necessary to fully implement the law. They have met privately with local politicians and bombarded legislators with "hundreds, if not thousands," of letters and faxes, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

But when a public hearing about the rules was held in late March, business boycotted rather than face the stream of workers and neighbors who testified.

Something to hide?
"I never had a respiratory problem before-but something happened to me that day," said Shirley Maultsby, a school security guard who was hospitalized after the Heterene accident. She said her blood pressure went dangerously high on the day of the chemical release, and that she now becomes short of breath easily and has developed extreme sensitivity to certain chemicals.

"Corporate polluters oppose this law and any rules to implement it," said Karen Szczepanski, coordinator of the Passaic County Right to Know & Act Coalition, a unique alliance including unions representing workers in chemical facilities, environmental organizations, and community organizations. "Do they have something hazardous to hide?"

It appears Heterene did. Had the right-to-act law been in place last June, workers and residents might have been able to keep tabs on the company and prevent the toxic exposure suffered by hundreds of children, teachers, and others.

Highly hazardous
Heterene, which processes chemicals used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, is one of 160 chemical plants in New Jersey subject to special inspections by the state Department of Environmental Protection because it uses highly hazardous materials.

Although the DEP inspected Heterene at least ten times since 1993, inspectors missed the fact that the company did not have a permit to use the extremely hazardous chemical known as Cresol, the substance that vaporized and wafted over the Paterson school. What's more, last April inspectors also overlooked the haphazard and dangerous storage of 1,100 drums of toxic substances, some of which were leaking and deteriorating. Several law enforcement agencies are now conducting criminal investigations of the company.

Supporters of the Passaic law refuse to give ground in what looks to be a long battle with industry. They believe the "right-to-act" offers and enlightened approach that can be replicated in communities coast to coast. This strategy is based on empowerment of workers and communities, not reliance on government enforcement strategies destined to fail due to a lack of both resources and political will.

"Who better to monitor unsafe facilities than neighbors and workers?" said Mark Dudzic, president of Local 2-149 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which represents workers at three Passaic County chemical manufacturing facilities. "We all have a huge stake in preventing toxic exposures since we suffer the the most when irresponsible employers put production before human health."

Copyright 1999 Jim Young. Reprinted by permission of the author. Jim Young is special projects director for the New Jersey Work Environment Council. For information about the Passaic right-to-act law, contact WEC, 198 West State Street, 3rd Floor, Trenton, NJ 08608 or call 609/695-7100. This article appeared in the May '99 issue of Labor Notes. Subscriptions to Labor Notes are $20 a year, to Labor Notes, 7435 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI 48210.

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