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Earth Day Month: Harrison Must Have Environmental Justice

Apr 30, 2024
Harrison NJ Environmental Justice

The month of April celebrated as Earth Day Month, is a time to reflect on sustainability and environmental justice—a crucial aspect for towns like Harrison, New Jersey, with a complex history of environmental challenges and transformation.

Historical Challenges

Over 26 years ago, the southern part of Harrison was designated as a blighted area, marked by abandoned properties and contaminated soils. This part of town had once housed industries that contributed significantly during World War II, particularly in efforts against the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler. Its industry including Crucible Steel, Otis Elevator, and Radio Corporation of America (RCA) made the munitions and other products that helped win the war.  However, post-war, other companies occupied buildings and the Harrison Master Plan lifespan was infinite.  An infinite life span helped other industrial companies occupy the buildings and employ many residents and commuters in a variety of companies.  In the 1980s however, many companies opted to purchase cheaper steel from abroad including China and companies began to leave the Town of Harrison.  When the companies left, it was discovered that some of the properties were contaminated and property tax appeals were filed causing loss of ratable a common story in the industrial sectors across the United States.

Redevelopment Efforts


In response, then-Mayor Raymond McDonough and the Town Council, including former Councilman Anselmo Millan, formed the Harrison Redevelopment Agency. This initiative aimed to transform the area into a hub for residential and office buildings. While the office buildings did not materialize as planned, the redevelopment successfully attracted investments for modern luxury apartments and two hotels. These developments have significantly boosted the local economy, generating approximately $14 million annually in payments in lieu of property taxes.

Environmental Justice

After 26 years, the Town of Harrison has been revitalized with modern luxury apartment buildings and increasing revenue from payments in lieu of property taxes. Despite these successes, Harrison faces an expected challenge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed building a facility for handling toxic dioxin-laden sludge from the Passaic River a legacy of the Agent Orange produced at the Diamond Shamrock plant in the neighboring Ironbound Section of Newark.  EPA wants to dump toxic dioxin-laden sludge and debris from the Passaic River on the PSE&G property, a site previously earmarked for community-centric developments like a multi-level community center, green space park, and a turnaround/drop-off zone. This plan has met with opposition from the community. But the current Mayor of Harrison, James Fife has hidden, lied about, and NOT objected to the EPA Toxic Sludge Plant. He has stated at several Town of Harrison meetings that he knows nothing about the plans.

Mayor Fife did not acknowledge his statement in a Harrison Redevelopment Agency meeting on August 29, 2022, where he clearly knew about EPA’s plan and did not oppose it.  In fact, he denied he made a recorded statement on Zoom hoping nobody would notice. This situation highlights a significant challenge—EPA and Mayor James Fife whose legacy unless the community of Harrison and surrounding towns stands up and opposes this terrible plan to put dioxin cancer-causing sludge in what is now a residential neighborhood, an area transformed from industrial blight to residential vitality.

Broader Environmental Justice in New Jersey

Harrison's situation is reflective of broader issues in regions like Kearny, where the nearby Keegan Landfill was a source of hydrogen sulfide and methane emissions before its closure. The then Mayor Alberto Santos and the Town Council joined the community in its fight to Close and Cap the Keegan Landfill. Mayor Santos & Council went as far as filing a lawsuit against the New Jersey Sports & Exhibition Authority (NJSEA), a New Jersey State entity, to close the landfill. Ultimately, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously voted to close the Keegan Landfill stating that it was causing “irreparable harm” to the community.  Efforts continue to mitigate these gases, a remnant of the landfill’s legacy. Additionally, New Jersey's Environmental Justice Law, enacted to protect overburdened communities from disproportionate pollution exposure, plays a critical role in such urban contexts, offering a legal framework for resisting environmentally harmful projects.

As Harrison and similar towns observe Earth Day, the challenge remains not only to celebrate environmental achievements but also to vigilantly guard these gains against potential setbacks. The story of Harrison serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for environmental justice and sustainable development—a narrative of transformation, resilience, and continued vigilance in the face of new environmental threats.  Who would think the agency set up to clean up the Environment would seek to place toxic dioxin-laden cancer-causing sludge in a residential community which has taken over 26 years to rid itself of contaminated properties.  How can the Mayor & Council of Harrison not oppose EPA’s plan?

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