Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, on the eastern edge of the city, covers just four square miles. But crammed alongside its more than 50,000 residents are hundreds of contaminated sites, industrial warehouses, a sewage processing facility and an incinerator that burns trash from as far away as New York City.
A new documentary airing Thursday on NJTV at 8 p.m. and screening at the Montclair Film Festival this weekend, focuses on the activists fighting for a cleaner community that is predominantly Black and brown.
“It really opens your eyes up to the level of toxicity that is descending on one group of people in one very small geographic location,” said filmmaker Julie Winokur, who directed and produced The Sacrifice Zone.
Winokur, who lives in Montclair and founded Talking Eyes Media, said she wanted to highlight how much each of us contribute to this pollution in the Ironbound, an area east of Newark’s Penn Station and southwest of the Passaic River.
“This is our trash. Our sewage, all the goods we buy that come through the Port of Newark and leave there on a diesel spewing truck. This is our mess,” she said.
The film centers on the women of color leading the fight for environmental justice in Newark, like Maria Lopez Nunez, who organizes with the Ironbound Community Corporation.
“We've only allowed people to put that toxic stuff in one neighborhood around Black and brown people, around low-income people,” Lopez Nunez said. “We have disposable peoples.”
Lopez Nunez helps lead “toxic tours” around the Ironbound, pointing to the so-called “chemical corridor,” where there’s a fat rendering plant and the waste incinerator that emits lead and dioxin about two miles from an elementary school.
Listen to Karen Yi's report on WNYC:
Covanta, the waste-to-energy plant, said it meets state emission standards and has invested $90 million to reduce its emissions.
But on top of the incinerator, thousands of trucks criss-cross the Ironbound’s residential streets every day, many from Port Newark and planes emitting lead zoom overhead from Newark Airport.
Lopez Nunez said the city has the highest rate of asthma in New Jersey.
“So when we say we can't breathe, we cannot breathe,” she told Gothamist/WNYC.
But a new law signed by Governor Phil Murphy last month is giving Lopez Nunez and organizers across the state some hope.
State environmental officials are now required to consider— for the first time—the cumulative impact of allowing new power plants or other manufacturing facilities to open up in communities already overburdened with pollution.
“Hopefully, we can start taking steps towards healing from systematic environmental racism,” Lopez Nunez said.