Disclosure Notice: I purchased my copy of the book. Friend and colleague Todd Jarvis, who suggested I read it and initially lent me his copy, dubbed it Cadillac Contamination. One might also call it An Uncivil Action. The map of Toms River is from the New York Times

Cutting to the Chase

Read it! Toms River by Dan Fagin, a journalism professor at NYU who directs the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP), sets a new standard for environmental reporting. Simple as that. Details? Read on, my children.


Coal tar. Even the name sounds dirty. It’s the gooey brown liquid that remains after DanSmilingCropped-283x300
coal is burned at high temperature in the absence of oxygen.  As author and master raconteur Dan Fagin notes, it was arguably the first major industrial waste. And a couple of hundred years ago people were trying to find uses for it. Did they ever.

Personal Encounter

I first knowingly (forgetting aspirin, shampoo, dyed clothes, medicines, adhesives, etc.) encountered coal tar in the form of coal tar epoxy or CTE, a substance used as a plug in the stemming of boreholes used to emplace thermonuclear devices (not ‘bombs’, if you please; they are called ‘bombs’ only when they fall from the sky) for underground testing. I had no idea that crappy coal tar had such an important societal use – preventing underground thermonuclear explosions from venting radionuclides to the atmosphere. Little did I know.

History LessonBook

Fagin starts by taking us back a few hundred years or so. After a brief history of of Toms River, he introduces us to coal tar and those who first tried to find a use for it. Leave it to a tinkering teenager.

In an attempt to synthesize the malaria medicine quinine from coal tar components, young (18) British chemistry student William Perkin discovered a substance at the bottom of his test tube that, when treated with alcohol, imparted a brilliant blue color to his cleaning cloth. No quinine, but Perkin knew he was onto something: the makings of the modern dye industry.

An aside – what happened to dyes? Didn’t the Romans, Phoenicians and others have beautifully-dyed garments? Sure they did. Fagin explains what happened.

Perkin’s work opened the door. By isolating coal tar’s components, chemists isolated a number of organic compounds. Some of these – aniline, especially – produced bright colors that transferred easily and permanently to fabrics. No more dull greys and browns, mind you, but bright reds, yellows, purples, blues, etc. Firms, initially mainly German and Swiss (Ciba-Geigy, BASF, Bayer, Agfa and others) – prospered over the next 100-150 years producing not only dyes but many other chemicals – paints, aspirin, solvents, resins, cosmetics, etc. from coal tar. Yes, better living through chemistry was born in Perkin’s test tube.

Going Down the Shore

Fast forward to Toms River, NJ, a town ‘down the shore’ as New Jerseyans are wont to 0319-sci-SCIBOOKS-articleInline-v2say. It’s about 55 miles east of Philadelphia ad 70 miles south of New York City. In 1952 the chemical company Ciba (later Ciba-Geigy after a merger) located a large factory complex on a two-square mile parcel on the outskirts of town. The hamlet was elated to have the plant, as it meant lots of good-paying jobs, prosperity and all that other stuff public officials, merchants, and community boosters crave.

What they didn’t know at the time was that their air, beloved river, aquifer, soil, and nearshore saltwater would be polluted with all sorts of coal tar derivatives. Water would taste funny and look odd. Worst of all,  friends, neighbors and children would be afflicted with cancer. Ah, but when the Toms River turned a color, it was a really pretty color.

Most people looked the other way and the good folks at the plant denied any that the pollution was harmful. No, the groundwater was not contaminated. Besides, if it were, it was caused by the other company’s (Union Carbide) drums at a leaking landfill.

You know the drill. Some mothers and cancer ward nurses get curious about all the Toms River children showing up in the cancer wards of hospitals. Who listens to them? Doctors? The NJDEP? A cancer cluster in Toms River? What exactly is a cancer cluster? It’s not as straightforward as one might think. Maybe someone knows someone who has a sister who works for EPA who knows….Personal connections loom large.


So Fagin tells us another story about industrial pollution and dying children? As one politician might say, ‘Stuff happens.’ Besides, didn’t Jonathan Harr do this with Woburn, MA, and TCE in A Civil Action? Heck, that was a made into a movie with John Travolta!

But Fagin did not win a Pulitzer Prize for Toms River by rehashing the SOS. Yes, he tells the Toms River story: the chemicals, the company, the cancer, and most of all, the people. But his book does for occupational health and environmental epidemiology what Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert did for Western US water: it put those topics on the map.

Throughout the book, as Fagin spins his tale about Toms River, he periodically indulges in sections about the historical development of cancer studies, environmental epidemiology, and toxicology. He talks about waste management and public health. It’s a history lesson  on the development of those fields and the personalities (believe me, there are some real characters) involved. His approach is not only educational but also results in a book that tells multiple, interrelated stories.

So you’re probably thinking that Fagin’s book is like one of the time-travel shows where you go back and forth in time so often that you get terribly confused. What is the story? Which timeline am I on? That’s where Fagin’s skill as a writer and communicator comes to the fore. His approach enhances the narrative and provides extraordinary context. It’s a brilliant literary tool. It’s not original, but I don’t recall ever seeing it in a book in this genre – or done so seamlessly.

One bonus: for fans of A Civil ActionJan Schlichtmann, the flamboyant, combative attorney played by John Travolta in the film, returns from the dead, but with a new gig that proves instrumental in negotiations. No, it’s not an AK-47.

My Takeaways

1) Personal connections count; when regulators drop the ball or can’t find it, these count.

2) It’s unlikely that we’ll see many technical contamination studies as detailed and expensive as this one. Who’s going to pay? But perhaps this book will have an effect on the need for such studies.

3) This book has changed the ways I look and think about things. When I see a brightly-colored fabric, I often think of children with cancer in Toms River and elsewhere and wonder if my garments contributed to some child’s agonizing death. I can’t get Michael Gillick out of my mind.

4) Many plants like the Toms River one have relocated to Asia. The Asian workers have less protection than Americans do. Good luck!

5) Thank heavens for a free press and investigative reporters. The latter are waning, although maybe Dan Fagin’s SHERP can stanch the decline.

6) Incredible documentation and indexing. What a source!

7) New Yorkers rarely feel any compassion towards New Jersey. Hey, c’mon, the entire state’s a landfill!  That’s changed.

Read it!

“A good working definition of a public health catastrophe is a health effect so large that even an epidemiological study can detect it.” – David Ozonoff, Boston University (page 442 of Toms River.) 

TGIF! Weekly Water News Summary, 26 September – 2 October 2015

October 3, 2015 | Posted by Michael "Aquadoc" Campana
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Fewer entries this week – I am enjoying (really!) the ICIWaRM Ms._SinghPartners’ Meeting in Golden, CO. We’ve got a small, highly motivated group unconcerned with boundaries and other such matters.

We had a great luncheon conversation with Manisha Singh, international consultant, some ofManisha whose work involves water issues.

Just about finished here and ready to go home.

Have a great weekend.

Click here to access the weekly water news.

“By its very nature, climate change is a cause that should unite us all.” - Kofi Annan 


October 2, 2015 | Posted by Susan Scalia
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Editorial: Wigington discusses large-scale water resource issues addressed by recent JAWRA journal articles.

Technical Papers:

Perrone et al. present a comprehensive literature review of national and regional United States water-use estimates and projections.

Keum and Kaluarachchi conduct uncertainty analysis using the SPARROW model to estimate dissolved-solids transport in the Upper Colorado River basin.

Lam et al. present a cost-effective laser scanning method for stream channel geometry and roughness.

Kharel and Kirilenko use SWAT to evaluate the influence of climate change on long-term flood risks of Devils Lake in North Dakota.

Moorhead et al. assess the accuracy NOAA gridded daily reference evapotranspiration data for the Texas High Plains.

Sangwan and Merwade develop a fast, economical approach to floodplain mapping using soil information.

King et al. develop an improved weather generator algorithm for multisite simulation of precipitation and temperature.

Johnson et al. use SWAT to model the sensitivity of streamflow and water quality to climate change and urban development in large U.S. watersheds.

Vineyard et al. compare green and gray infrastructure using life cycle cost and environment impact for a rain garden case study in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Stets et al. use long-term water quality monitoring data to discern regional and temporal nitrate trends across the U.S.

Jessup and Pappani develop an assessment approach for Idaho streams that combines biological and habitat indices.

Reiter et al. examine a long-term data set from forested watersheds in the Pacific Northwest to evaluate the combined effects of hydro-climatic patterns and forest management on stream temperature.

Evans et al. review literature dealing with the hydrologic effects of surface coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains.

  GTMG. Tracy Mehan III, who is now AWWA’s new Executive Director of Government Affairs, was kind enough to send me his review of David L. Sedlak’s book, Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource.

I should add that Tracy is a skilled writer and reviewer and knows how to write a review. It will appear in an upcoming issue of The Environmental Forum published by the Environmental Law Institute.

Download Review_Water_4.0

In his accompanying email, Tracy included this message:

It is a stimulating and challenging book.  As an expert in the field, I welcome your comment on the book and/or my review.  Dr. Sedlak is clearly pushing the envelope in terms of the future of utilities and water management in the years ahead.

To whet your appetite, here are the first few paragraphs of the review:

David Sedlak, a Berkeley engineering professor, has written a challenging, Water bookwell-informed history of water and wastewater treatment. He employs a historical method in service of his argument for moving beyond massive, centralized treatment systems toward a more pluralistic, dis- tributed system that takes advantage of modern innovations in membrane, information, and other technologies, including the emulation of more natural flow regimes in treatment processes.

Sedlak is definitely of the school that rejects the very idea of wastewater, in reality water that is wasted. It should be reused or recycled. And, rather than simply transporting stormwater off site and into the sea, it should be viewed as a precious commodity to be treasured or retained and treated on site through infiltration, evapotranspiration, or reuse. Conservation and steward- ship should be elevated in the hierarchy of utility managers’ values over a single-minded focus on volumetric sales. This, in turn, will necessitate the reinvention of how water services are priced.

SedlakHe sees climate change,with its erratic precipitation patterns (too much or too little), as a primary driver of this imperative to get beyond the traditional water grid. Other drivers include a growing economy and population; ageing infrastructure; escalating costs of water capture, transport, storage, and treatment; and tena- cious resistance to rate or price increases by local leaders and citizens whether it be for upgrading infrastructure or conservation.

Enjoy the review!  I’ve not read the book.

“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” –  Yogi Berra (1925 – 2015)

TGIF! Weekly Water News Summary, 19 – 25 September 2015

September 25, 2015 | Posted by Michael "Aquadoc" Campana
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What a week! Yogi Berra died and Pope Francis made his first visit to the US. Below are quotes from each.


Here are more quotes from Pope Francis and Yogi.

Each is wise in his own way.

Click here to enjoy the week’s water news summary.

“Never delegate understanding.” - Charles Eames

AWRA Awards More Than $7,000 in Scholarships

September 24, 2015 | Posted by cmccrehin
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2015-16 Scholarship Winners (l to r): Alice Alonso, Jacqueline Gerson and Anna Radke.

2015-16 Scholarship Winners (l to r): Alice Alonso, Jacqueline Gerson and Anna Radke.

AWRA is pleased to announce the recipients of our 2015-16 Richard A. Herbert Memorial Scholarship Fund awards. Considered by AWRA and our members to be one of the organization’s greatest accomplishments, the scholarship fund, established in 1980, has helped 47 students continue with their studies in water resources management.

Application packets for 2016-2017 may be submitted starting in January 2016. For more information on our scholarship program email info@awra.org.

The 2015-16 AWRA Richard A. Herbert Memorial Scholarship Fund winners are:

Alice Alonso, 2015-2016 recipient of the Graduate (Ph.D.) Student Award ($2,000)
Alice is a Ph.D. student in the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department at the University of Florida (UF).  Her research project focuses on the Tempisque watershed in Costa Rica. The watershed is facing water management issues due to implementation of a large scale hydropower-irrigation project.  The Palo Verde National Park and its wetlands, situated downstream, are showing severe ecological degradation.  Alice’s hypothesis is that those changes are a direct consequence of the human transformations in the upper part of the basin. To test this, with the support of the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS) she has built an instrumentation network to analyze a large and diverse data set. At the end of her project, the collected database will be publically released, and the instrumentation network will remain in place, with OTS encouraged to continue the monitoring process.

In her own words, “I believe we can provide water security for all while managing and using natural resources in a sustainable fashion, but there is still a pressing need to further understand and develop tools that encompass the complexity of those systems. This is for me one of the biggest challenges of our century, and I am willing to participate in meeting it.”

Jacqueline Gerson, 2015-2016 recipient of the Graduate (M.S.) Student Award ($2,000)
Jacqueline is currently studying environmental engineering science as a master’s candidate at the College of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Syracuse University. Her research focus is examining the implications of increased productivity in Adirondack lakes, with the prediction that altered nutrient limitation patterns associated with decreased acid deposition could change trophic structure within these lakes. In addition to her research pursuits, her academic coursework is focused on the interdisciplinary field of aquatic biogeochemistry, including chemistry, hydrology, ecology, statistics, and STEM communication.

In her own words, “Science has always been the outlet for my interminable curiosity and my source of explanation for environmental phenomena. I strive to share this passion and knowledge with others so they, too, can engage in scientific exploration.”

Anna Radke, 2015-2016 recipient of the Undergraduate Student Award ($2,000)
Anna is currently majoring in hydrology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP). She is most interested in water chemistry, specifically the interactions of water and soil with agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. To that end, she has added minors in chemistry and soil science.  She has worked on several undergraduate research projects relating to nutrient flux in wetland and upland soils, and an environmental chemistry project related to poly-aromatic hydrocarbons in wood smoke.

In her own words, “I am currently exploring my options for graduate school in water or environmental chemistry, and also looking at possibilities for employment with both government agencies and private environmental monitoring groups. I’d especially like to pursue research relating the groundwater hydrology of watersheds to their dominant species of nutrient pollution. We humans need to learn to live with the planet, not just on it.”

In addition, due to the overwhelming generosity of AWRA members, the Board of Directors and Scholarship Committee are pleased to announce three ancillary scholarships. Recipients are:

  • Molly Welsh, SUNY-ESF – Ph.D. Student
  • Christopher Groff, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee – M.S. Student
  • JD Coffee, Abilene Christian University – Undergraduate Student

If you would like to show your support for our next generation of water resources managers, please consider making a donation to our scholarship program. You do not need to be a member of AWRA to donate.

September 2015 President’s Message

September 21, 2015 | Posted by admin
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Tracy photo

John C. Tracy, AWRA President

September 2015 President’s Column, Water Resources IMPACT

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about the measurement and use of water resources data, and the need to develop, maintain, and make accessible water data sets that can aid in managing a wide range of hydroservices. I believe this can be summed up in a quote that I am probably butchering, and I do not know who to attribute it to, but I believe it goes something like “You only value what you measure.” There are many interpretations related to this quote, or quotes like this, such as the article by Dan Ariely in the Harvard Business Review entitled “You are what you measure” (June 2010, p. 38). The basic premise of the article is that developing a particular metric, or measure, of the performance of a company will drive the behavior of that company. What this quote, and its many interpretations point out, is that to effectively manage any process, system, entity, or function requires access to reliable information in a timely fashion that is directly related to its objectives. It is clear that the idea of the development of performance metrics, and the underlying need for robust data collection efforts, is taking an ever important place in our society. This includes developing data collection processes and attempting to create metrics to assess the performance, and guide the policies related to, educational programs, a wide variety of governmental functions, and even to manage professional sports (think Money Ball). Thus, it should be no surprise that to effectively plan and manage any water resources system requires a robust data collection and management effort.

Over the last several decades there has been quite a bit of discussion and research regarding how data can be used to better manage water resource and environmental systems. In the early to mid-2000s there was an entirely new field of study developed, referred to as Adaptive Management, that at its heart relied on data collection and analysis to help guide future management decisions and activities. One of the core philosophies of Adaptive Management was realizing that for as much as we know right now, by continual measurement and assessment we will become smarter in the future, and we need to be able to modify management systems to benefit from this increase in information and knowledge. The ideas behind Adaptive Management, and its practice, were the subject of two AWRA Specialty Conferences, the first held in Missoula, Montana, in June 2006, and the second held in Snowbird, Utah, in June 2009, and two issues of IMPACT. At the heart of all of the discussions related to developing Adaptive Management strategies was the assumption that we would have access to reliable data in a timely fashion in order to make effective management decisions. These conferences, and most early discussions of Adaptive Management, focused on how to use data to aid in modifying management plans and restoration activities, rather than focusing on how to effectively collect, archive, integrate, and make accessible water resources data sets. Thus, it was soon discovered that the use of Adaptive Management strategies was severely limited by the availability of data sets that could effectively inform water resource management activities.

In many respects, the problem was not that water resource data was not collected, but rather this data was not readily available for use in aiding a wide range of water resource management decisions in a timely manner. This need was recently recognized, and has resulted in creating the Open Water Data Initiative (OWDI), which is an initiative of the Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI), under the USGS Water Information Coordination Program (WICP). The ACWI is comprised of over 24 federal, state, local, regional, academic, industry, and professional associations whose “Purpose is to improve water information for decision making about natural resources management and environmental protection.” A complete description of the OWDI can be found at http://acwi.gov/spatial/owdi/. Briefly though, the OWDI is attempting to improve the access to, and the value of, water data by creating a national framework that integrates existing data sources and archiving systems with tools that enhance the sharing of water data, allows for water data enrichment, and facilitates the development of solutions to better manage water and environmental systems. A key element of the OWDI is the improvement of the Open Water Web, organizing it as four primary functions: being a Water Data Catalog, Developing Water Data as a Service, Provide Water Data Enrichment Tools (e.g. coupling of data with models), and Creating a Water Data and Tools Market Place.

The AWRA was honored to have the first public discussions of the OWDI at our annual conference in Tysons Corner, Virginia, in November 2014, with Dr. David Maidment providing an overview of the OWDI, and organizing several sessions to discuss the OWDI and gather information to help guide its progression. This year¹s annual conference in Denver (http://www.awra.org/meetings/ Denver2015/) will again feature two sessions addressing the OWDI, with these sessions being designed to both present advances in the initiative, and provide forums to further discuss the OWDI and allow all to become involved in guiding this effort. These sessions should be of interest to a wide range of attendees, and I would encourage you to show up early, as last year¹s sessions were standing room only.

I look forward to seeing you at the annual conference in Denver, and please come join the conversation on the OWDI.

TGIF! Weekly Water News Summary, 12 – 18 September 2015

September 18, 2015 | Posted by Michael "Aquadoc" Campana
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Nice to be back in Corvallis and the rain we had the last few days. Poster

This poster was on a number of lawns in northern New Hampshire, protesting the construction of a power line across the landscape. Nice play on the motto found on NH license plates.

And here is a screenshot sent by John Fleck from Breitbart: Racist

The headline so annoyed John that he did not provide a link, but advised his readers they could Google it if they wanted to see it.

Click here to view the weekly water news summary.


“There are three stages of scientific discovery: first, people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally, they credit the wrong person.” -Alexander von Humboldt

TGIF! Weekly Water News Summary, 5 – 11 September 2015

September 11, 2015 | Posted by Michael "Aquadoc" Campana
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Sorry I am posting this so late. Therea re not as many items this week; I have been Signdriving around Vermont and New Hampshire seeing old friends and preparing for another weekend reunion in Bethlehem, NH.

Click here for the weekly water news summary.

“We know everything but understand nothing.” -Unknown (thanks to Dave McTigue)

TGIF! Weekly Water News Summary, 29 August – 4 September 2015

September 4, 2015 | Posted by Michael "Aquadoc" Campana
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I thought I would post this interesting graphic, sent to me by Lauren Steely. In the foreground is San Francisco; in the background is all the water pumped from California’s Central Valley since 1962 – 100 cubic kilometers or 81 MAF.

Great visualization of a large amount of water.

Have a great Labor Day Weekend and travel safely!

Click here for the weekly water news!

“Do your job.” - Bill Belichick, Head Coach, New England Patriots


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