A Toxic Tale of DuPont and the Pompton Lake

It was about 40 years ago that I worked as a reporter for a small local newspaper in Northern New Jersey covering a string of towns in the northern part of Bergen, Passaic and Morris counties. The crown jewel of my coverage area was Pompton Lakes. A borough of about 10,000 people, Pompton Lakes had a vibrant classic “main street,” bounded to the north by a state forest and to the south by a 175-acre man-made lake.

In that setting, the environment was an important issue. I remember doing more than one story about concerns over the fecal bacteria count in the lake. But we all missed the most important environmental issue. I attended Pompton Lakes council meetings for about two years and never remember anyone mentioning the explosives plant in the northern part of town.

I’ve long since left that reporter job and moved away from the Pompton Lakes area. So I haven’t given the town much thought. That is until it showed up in “Dirty Little Secrets,” a journalism project coordinated by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The borough’s dirty but not-so-secret issue is described in Scott Gurian’s piece published in NJ Spotlight in December, “Legacy of DuPont Plant’s Pollution Looms Large for People of Pompton Lakes.”

Gate at DuPont site

Dupont made explosives on Cannonball Road in Pompton Lakes from 1902 to 1994. The jobs that the plant provided for local residents are long gone but DuPont’s presence is still widely felt. The following excerpt from an EPA Region 2 report describes exactly what that presence is:

“Waste management practices during the facility’s operation resulted in contamination of surface water, soil and sediment and ground water both on and off site. Wastes disposed of on site included lead salts, mercury compounds, explosive powders, chlorinated solvents, waste wire drawing solutions and detonated blasting caps. Primary contaminants in the soil and sediments are lead and mercury. Ground water contaminants include volatile organic compounds which are potential harmful contaminants that can cause vapor intrusion to indoor air. Lead and mercury releases have migrated off site resulting in soil contamination at 140 homes near Acid Brook. Contaminated groundwater also migrated off site with the potential for vapor intrusion from the contaminated groundwater impacting off-site residences.”

No swimmingAcid Brook is a stream that originates on the DuPont property and dumps into Pompton Lake. I’m sure you can guess how it got its name.

There are still some hearty souls who swim in Pompton Lake, although it is not recommended. Boating and fishing still takes place there but fishermen are warned not to eat their catch. Mercury-tainted fish, however, are only a small part of the problem.

In 2009 the New Jersey State Department of Health and Senior Service found that women in Pompton Lakes had higher than normal levels of kidney cancer and men showed elevated rates of non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma. Writing in Al Jazeera America (“Pompton Lakes Community Fears DuPont Could Shirk Toxic Cleanup”), Maggie Donaldson notes a state survey found “women in Pompton Lakes are hospitalized for tumerous cancers 40% more frequently than those in neighboring communities and the borough’s men are hospitalized 23% more than elsewhere in the state.”

But the regulators refuse to attribute their findings to the toxins that spewed out of the DuPont site. Correlation does not prove causality they say. But maybe if you add a little common sense to the mix it does.

This is a story that has been heard many times before. I’m reminded of Dan Fagan’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning book “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.” In Toms River the culprit was Ciba Chemical Company.  And when the families of kids stricken with cancer began to ask questions, local and state officials took the same “see no evil, hear no evil” approach.

In the 1970’s we didn’t know as much about carcinogens and where they came from as we know now. I understand that. Yet there’s no excuse for denying the consequences and avoiding accountability. There’s surely a lesson to be learned about protecting the environment and the long-term safety of the people who live in that environment. But if you listen to the Congressmen, governors and presidential aspirants who dismiss climate change as an issue, I’m afraid that lesson hasn’t been absorbed very well.

Pompton Lake



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28 Responses to A Toxic Tale of DuPont and the Pompton Lake

  1. Ken, if the regulators had listened at the time of Tom’s river many polluted waters and horrific illnesses could very well have been avoided. I’m sure with your environmental awareness and natural curiosity that you’ve heard about Bruce Nuclear wanting to bury their radioactive waste here within a mile of Lake Huron. I live about 30 miles east of Bruce Nuclear and the very thought that they may receive government approval is horrible. Don’t these people realize the value of water?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Donna Janke says:

    Pompton Lake looks so pretty and yet it is toxic. It is really sad that we aren’t learning lessons about the environment and accountability faster.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. heraldmarty says:

    It’s really heartbreaking what has been done to our natural resources over the years. Certainly some out of ignorance, but a great deal stems from good old greed. Thanks for sharing this story Ken, the more we’re aware of these issues the more we’re reminded to pay attention to what’s going on in our own backyards.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Phoenicia says:

    This sounds horrific!

    Looks can be deceiving as the lake appears tranquil and pretty, yet lurking deep beneath is toxic waste.

    I am fascinated by the mass of land in America – everything in the UK is much smaller in comparison.


  5. Beth Niebuhr says:

    What a shame! Poor little town! I hope that the publicity on the Flint, Michigan water disaster is helping to open people’s eyes to such things. Sadly, not everyone reads your blog posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m shaking my head as I read this and thinking, “Really? Still?” How do the corporations who caused these problems–knowingly or not–refuse to accept responsibility now? Cause and effect? Sounds logical to me. Statistics are right there, adding up. Argh. When will it change?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ken, I’m pretty sure the lessons are learned but just not adhered to. I believe in following the money and my guess is, our gangster politicians are lining their pockets with it either out of ignorance or lack of caring. I don’t like to this it’s not caring so I’ll try to keep believing, when will they become more knowledgeable about the affects of such careless management of our resources.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. BroadBlogs says:

    So much beauty spoiled. Sad. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What corporations do to make money is horrendous. How can they live with themselves knowing that people are dying in order for them to make profit? When it comes to the West the United States is the worst polluter. And the republican party is against taking care of the environment. Just listen to the G.O.P. candidates for president. If one of them is elected POTUS people will continue to die this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Barry says:

    Nicely written, Ken. I grew up in idyllic, Wayne, right down the river/street from Pompton Lakes. I cannot begin to count the friends and family I have lost to cancer and have little doubt it all comes from the corporate pollution from the 1st half of the century.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      I’m sure the stuff we know about is only the tip of the iceberg. I grew up in Totowa where we always had to close the classroom windows in my elementary school because of the stench coming from the perfume factory down the street. Don’t imagine that was harmless.


  11. Your post brings to mind how the entire Silver Valley in Idaho was deemed an environmental disaster clean-up site some years ago. The EPA came in and replaced the dirt in many yards and driveways with either gravel or sod. The mine tailings over the years in the area created a lot of issues. At one point the surrounding hillsides mostly died due to the smelt from Bunker Hill (I think that must have been in the late sixties or early seventies) It’s a sore spot for many miners. My family turned down the offer for fixing up their yard. Ironically, the fill my dad put in the big lot behind his garage were mine tailings. “Hey, it was cheap.” That’s how he replies.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Andy says:

    Mercury is bad news. It’s a cumulative poison: once it’s ingested, it stays in – the body doesn’t excrete it.

    It sounds as though local/state officials are on the take, directly or indirectly. What about the feds? What about a civil lawsuit? Accountability-wise, where there’s a legal will, there oughta be a way!

    One more thing: just what did DuPont do with those explosives, anyway?


  13. W.A.Rusho says:

    Thank you for proving this informational post.
    The one thing that bothers me about pollution about companies, is how some Politian’s think it is OK.
    They site jobs are destroyed by regulations in this country, and if you probe further, you find out they want to remove the regulations in regards to pollution. Some of them want so few regulations, they would not mind if our country turned into China, where thousands of people die of polluted air each year.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Ken, this of course brings to mind the toxic water problem that is plaguing the city of Flint, Michigan right now. It is very sad to see what corporations are doing to our environment. No regard whatsoever to what we are leaving behind for the next generations. And nowadays, we should know better.


  15. Erica says:

    I commented on this yesterday, but I don’t think it went through so take 2! My dad actually worked for DuPont in New Jersey when he was dating my mother. I talk to much about things that people can do to be healthier. But this is something that is out of people’s control. Innocent people suffer and they shouldn’t. It is sad that such harm is done, all in the name of big business.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Wayne says:

    We not months ago learned of the Ringwood Mines pollution and denials as well. Hmmm, the industrialists, industrial north. We are this week learning about the death at age 97 the man behind OxyCotin….. what next?!


  17. narstdec says:

    I have lived in MI several decades but grew up in Pompton Lakes. My mother died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and three of her best adult friends, all of whom had themselves grown up in PL, died by middle-age of various kinds of cancer. And yet when these things were questioned, the claims were that there was no connection between what was happening at DuPont and such illnesses–yeah, right….


    • Ken Dowell says:

      That seems to be the standard answer in situations like this.


    • Julie Tibbits says:

      My Mom (Sandy Cochrane) and grandmother (Eleanor Cochrane Svensson) both died of cancer as well. My grandfather built their home in 1950 across the tracks from the plant on Romain Ave… my grandfather and grandmother both worked at the plant. My mother was sick from age 11 on and died at 41. Medical records and such are not accessible (she died in 1984), but me and my siblings are 100% sure her death and poor quality of life from 11 on leading up and causing her death and my grandmothers death is at the hands of Dupont.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. That’s not too far from where I live. I didn’t know about this!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Ken, Thank you for your blog post on Pompton Lakes. We truly need national attention on the town if we are ever to see a full cleanup and full compensation for those affected by this toxic nightmare. I’m moved this past October, in part because of this issue and the financial burdens of living in the contaminated Plume area of town. I highly recommend to you and your followers to read The Record newspaper’s four-part exposé from February 2018, “Toxic Secrets”. There are four major articles and several videos, as well as several followup articles and interviews on NPR, including one where I discuss these issues with Governor Murphy. Here is a link to the series, https://www.northjersey.com/topic/3d39f8e8-635a-4f02-8c00-c9e78cb3bca7/toxic-secrets/. Here are two links to the NPR interviews, the first with the reporters from the series, the second with Governor Murphy. Midday on WNYC – DuPont’s Toxic Legacy in New Jersey
    Governor Murphy and Jefferson Harman LaSala talk on The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC,  March 14, 2018 https://www.wnyc.org/story/gov-murphys-first-budget/ 
    Lastly, a gentle correction: From your paragraph, “Boating and fishing still takes place there but fishermen are warned not to eat their catch.” We have been requesting, even demanding proper signage to warn people of the dangers of fishing in the lake. The borough council has refused to fully comply time and again. What small signage there has been is too little and often posted in areas where people do not fish. They refuse to post signs on the bridge, which is where the majority of the fishing takes place. It’s sad that many of these people are not being properly informed 37 years after the NJDEP formally admonished the polluter to fully test and clean up any areas affected by their toxic legacy. Thank you for your article. I greatly appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

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