“We’re used to seeing smoke coming out of those smokestacks. But to see bright pink and purple!” she says, incredulously.
“We said something’s up. Somebody’s got to look into this.”
Soon, phone calls streamed in from other residents of Newark’s working-class, mostly immigrant Ironbound neighborhood.
People were calling Lopez-Nuñez because she serves as the deputy director of organizing and advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC). Many Ironbound residents know ICC as the organization that runs after-school programs or puts on the local farmers’ market. The organization also takes on obstacles that stand in the way of community health, including housing discrimination, police brutality — and air pollution.
The smoke that seeped from the incinerator throughout the summer of 2019 was far more than just something to gawk at. Months later, residents would recognize it as evidence. The incinerator had been impermissibly burning toxic iodine that could harm their health.
In partnership with Earthjustice and Vermont Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, ICC has pushed the incinerator’s operator, Covanta, to take responsibility for the waste it emits into the surrounding community. (Read a report on New Jersey’s incinerators and trash energy.)
But the fight to make Covanta clean up its act is just one front in a larger battle the Ironbound is waging against a long history of industrial polluters treating the low-income, largely Black and Brown community as a dumping ground. Its successes may offer something of a roadmap for communities across the country that suffer from similar histories of environmental discrimination.
“Race and class must be at the front of the conversation,” says Lopez-Nuñez. “These things are not an accident. They’re never an accident.”