ELECTRON MAGAZINE
Number Two

RARITAN BAY

from the book The Politics of Ecology

by James Ridgeway

Travelers going in and out of New York City from New Jersey pass through this industrial mire, an area of stinking bogs, with flames and putrid smoke belching into the sky from chimneys of oil and chemical companies.  At the feet of these industrial engines, running amidst a clutter of towns and small cities, flows a foul-smelling sewer, the Arthur Kill, into which industries steadily pour all manner of refuse.  The Kill lies between the New Jersey shore and Staten Island, terminating on the north in Newark Bay.  At its southern outlet the accumulated filth is fed into the Raritan Bay, a body of water thirty square miles in area located beneath the sprawl of New York Harbor and designated since 1937 by New York and New Jersey as a playground for the 15 million people living in and around the city.  Beneath this huge cesspool, close to where the Arthur Kill spills out its contents, other sewer pipes converge beneath the water’s surface spewing forth 50 million gallons of human and industrial waste each day.  In all, the sewage from 1.2 million people is pumped into this bay every twenty-four hours.  Large amounts of inorganic waste also are deposited.  This mass of putrefaction oozes about the New Jersey and Staten Island shores for several days, washing the beaches with great quantities of fecal bacteria, closing out the light and consuming the oxygen required by fish and other forms of marine and animal life, before sluggishly moving seaward on the outgoing tide.

Raritan Bay was designated Class "A" waters by the Interstate Sanitation Commission, the organization formed in 1935 by the states of New York and New Jersey to regulate interstate water pollution.  The Roosevelt Administration regarded it as a model for future river-basin compacts.  Class "A" means that the waters are to be used primarily for bathing, boating, fishing and other recreational purposes, as well as for the maintenance of a shell-fish industry.  (Pollution has forced the closing of all but a small portion of the once prosperous shell-fish beds on the Raritan.) State health commissioners are members of the Interstate Sanitation Commission working independently and through the commission to enforce water standards.

The numerous tributaries, twisting tidal currents and the great increase of population and multiplicity of industry have combined to make abatement of pollution on the Raritan difficult.  Even so, efforts by the states and the commission have been so belted and so feeble that the Bay is one of the worst sewers in the nation.  In 1961, an outbreak of infectious hepatitis was traced to clams taken from the Raritan Bay, bacteria standards for which had not been enforced by the states.  The hepatitis outbreak became an especially sore point because specialists in the US Public Health Service had carefully traced the hepatitis outbreak, made what they believed to be accurate correlations between victims and the clams, and offered what they considered to be overwhelming scientific evidence to prove the point.  Nonetheless, the senior US health officials in New York, who were medical doctors, simply refused to send warning memoranda to their colleagues in the New Jersey state health department, lest they be embarrassed.

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It is nearly ten years [editor’s note: over 35 years now] since the Federal government entered the Raritan Bay to arrange for a clean-up; nothing much has happened except that population and industry have increased, adding to the levels of pollution.

Copyright © 1970 by James Ridgeway

Complete excerpts from The Politics of Ecology

About James Ridgeway

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