Sunday, May 1, 2016

Daniel Berrigan, R.I.P.

"The Trouble With Our State" poems by Daniel Berrigan

Peace Prayer Protest

He was the priest-poet of peace,
Daniel Berrigan was, a saintly soul
Along with his brothers Philip and Jerry
And assorted fellow religious peaceniks
Who went to jail for their beliefs,
Doing Plowshares protests of war machines.

Daniel prayed to stop deliberate destruction.
Did God ever stop and listen?
Daniel protested war and bad faith in pretenses of peace.
Did God hurl thunderbolts? Flood battlefields?
Daniel Berrigan prayed, protested, hurled poetry
At the worshipers of war.
Did God receive him into heavenly peace?

--Jan Barry

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dioxane: Latest Hidden Health Threat

Paint sludge in stream by Ringwood State Park, 2005     (photo: Jan Barry)

Across America, government officials have a terrible track record on leveling with residents about toxic substances in our food and water. From pesticides in food to lead in drinking water, officials are generally quick to dismiss public concerns.  

Recently, a crowd of upset residents in Ringwood, NJ was assured by EPA officials that the finding of suspected cancer-causing dioxane in water in their community poses no immediate health threat.

Residents of the former iron mining community in Upper Ringwood, where Ford Motor Company dumped paint sludge and other toxic waste decades ago, were told that the latest hazardous contaminant to be found in their midst is at very low levels in a closed mine and local streams.

What federal Environmental Protection Agency officials didn’t tell the 200 or so people crammed into the Ringwood borough council chambers is that Americans are virtually swimming in this dangerous chemical—which is in soap and numerous other household products and increasingly showing up in rivers and ground water across the nation.

A plume of dioxane-tainted ground water under Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, forced the closure of a city well and created concerns that the contamination may reach the Huron River and threaten the city’s main drinking water source, a local news agency, Mlive, reported in January. 

Dioxane Linked to Cancer and Kidney, Liver Damage

Studies with test animals found that, over time, breathing fumes or drinking contaminated water or having skin contact with 1,4-dioxane causes liver and kidney ailments, including cancer, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated in a 2007 assessment of this chemical, which is used as a solvent and in the production of many household products, including food.

“Human exposure to 1,4-dioxane may occur by inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact,” the report continued. “Because 1,4-dioxane may be found in tap water, human exposure to 1,4-dioxane may also occur during activities such as showering, bathing, and laundering.” the report added.

Besides what may be in the water, the report adds, “some cosmetics, detergents, and shampoos may contain 1,4-dioxane at levels higher than recommended by the FDA for other products.”

This synthetic industrial chemical is so widespread in American life that it is showing up in the discharge of sewage treatment plants, which often flow into rivers supplying drinking water to downstream communities. 

A North Carolina newspaper, The Courier-Tribune, reported last month that dioxane “became of interest in North Carolina after officials statewide conducted EPA-mandated tests ... Studies showed that Fayetteville and other communities along the Cape Fear River downstream of the Triad had elevated levels of 1,4 dioxane in drinking water drawn from the river.”

“Subsequent research traced much of the problem back to wastewater treatment plants in Greensboro, Asheboro and Reidsville along the Haw and Deep rivers that feed into the Cape Fear. The plants were releasing 1,4 dioxane in their treated sewage.”

The implication of such reports surfacing across the country is that the federal government has been slow to alert the public to what its health agencies have found to be a likely cause of cancer in people.

One observer at the EPA meeting in Ringwood raised an additional health risk factor.

“You’re not talking about the synergistic effect of this chemical combined with other chemicals and metals,” said Judith Zelikoff, a New York University environmental scientist who is doing a health study of area residents. “People I talk to have kidney problems,” Zelikoff added.

Previous water tests in the Ringwood Mines Superfund Site have repeatedly found elevated levels of benzene, lead and other hazardous substances. Under EPA oversight, Ford has fitfully removed tons of contaminated soil from the 500-acre site since the late 1980s. Tons more of industrial debris remain in old mine shafts and a landfill next to state parkland.

Several hundred people, many of them Ramapough Mountain Indians, live in the former mining community or moved elsewhere after growing up during the time industrial waste contaminated soil and water in the mountain area next to Ringwood State Park. Streams from the area flow to the nearby Wanaque Reservoir, the primary water supply for millions of residents in North Jersey.

EPA official assured the crowd, which included elected officials from Bergen and Passaic counties, that tests of the water at the reservoir water treatment plant had not found dioxane.

However, they reported that recent tests found dioxane in Park Brook flowing from the dump site and downstream in Sally’s Pond, a picturesque fishing spot by Ringwood Manor, an historic building in Ringwood State Park. Water from the pond flows into the reservoir.

“Our people drink from the springs, from the streams,” said Vincent Mann, a sub-chief of the Ramapough Indians, referring to the outdoors lifestyle of many Ringwood residents who grew up fishing and hunting in the forested Highlands region along the New Jersey-New York border. Mann also raised a concern with EPA officials that hikers in Ringwood State Park also visit the once-remote area.

Joe Gowers, the EPA case manager for the Ringwood Mines Superfund Site, told the crowd that “We believe the 1,4-dioxane has always been here.” It was found at the site in low levels, he said, because “There’s been a change in testing methods.”

He assured the crowd not to worry about these levels, in the range of 140 parts per billion in a mine air shaft full of water to .44 parts per billion in the pond by Ringwood Manor. The EPA has set a health advisory level of 200 parts per billion, he added.

“We have found 5,000 parts per billion in dish detergent,” he said, without elaborating on what that may mean to the average American household.

NJ Lowers Its Safety Limit for Dioxane

With little notice, some government agencies have begun to address dioxane as a health threat. New Jersey recently lowered its health advisory standard for dioxane in groundwater from 10 parts per billion to .4 parts per billion. But that change in a state regulation didn’t make the news. The information was reported to industrial contamination contractors by Cox-Colvin & Associates, a contamination cleanup consulting firm based in Ohio.

“For all active New Jersey sites where 1,4-dioxane is a known or potential contaminant of concern, the use of the new ground water remediation standard is effective immediately upon it’s posting to the NJDEP website (November 25, 2015),” Cox-Colvin noted in an industry newsletter.

“A handful of state governments including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and South Carolina have set advisory levels for 1,4-dioxane in water ranging from 70 μg/L [equivalent to parts per billion] to 0.3 μg/. Until now only Colorado had established an enforceable cleanup standard. With New Jersey and its many chlorinated solvent contaminated sites at the forefront of 1,4-dioxane investigation and remediation, expect the general awareness of this emerging contaminate to increase throughout the country.”

(An earlier version of this essay was published in The Record newspaper on 3/6/16)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Warrior Writers: Evolving, Involving Way of Addressing War Experiences

I’ve taught journalism to scores of college students over the past several years as an adjunct professor. It’s hard to say what impact my sharing reporting tips from a decades-long journalism career has had. The newspaper business as a place for writers to work and grow took a tremendous hit in the 2007 recession and from advertising migrating to the Internet. My volunteer work since retiring from the newsroom in 2008, especially my interaction with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper, has been far more satisfying, as I see many participants grow.

Warrior Writers workshops that I help facilitate in New Jersey welcome veterans and military family members. This combination has enriched the discussions at these gatherings. Vets trying to deal with combat experiences and dismay after coming home hear mothers reveal their anguish over a child serving in a war. Parents hear about things in military life that they had no inkling of.

Everyone at these workshops--designed to provide a safe haven for sharing hard to discuss experiences—has witnessed a combat vet choke up while trying to describe something that happened long ago. 

For more than a year, Warrior Writers NJ has held writing workshops in veterans’ homes, informal gatherings that have attracted about a dozen vets and family members to monthly Sunday afternoon get-togethers. The format has also provided a support system for helping to organize poetry readings and art shows in conjunction with Combat Paper NJ, an art group for veterans that works with Warrior Writers on public events.

Since September, Warrior Writers NJ has also provided evening writing workshops once a month at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in Morristown, NJ. This arrangement grew out of Warrior Writers poets being invited to read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in October 2014 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ.

Another evolution in Warrior Writers, which started in Philadelphia, PA in 2007 with a focus on assisting veterans of the War on Terrorism, is that the workshops have also attracted many other veterans who served prior to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“Warrior Writers saved my life,” says Sarah Mess, a New Jersey mother of two who served in a US Army field hospital in the war in Somalia in 1993. She was thrilled by an emotional meeting with another Somalia vet at a recent Warrior Writers workshop. At the same get-together were five Vietnam vets, a Gulf War I vet and the mother of a Marine who served in Iraq.

“The closest I have come to coming home has been in this community,” Sarah Mess said in a video, The Fog of War: Combat Paper and Warrior Writers, produced last year by State of the Arts NJ and shown on NJTV and other educational stations.

Under the direction of Warrior Writers founder Lovella Calica, the group has published four anthologies of writing and art by veterans who participated in workshops. The most recent is Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans, published in 2014. The anthology includes the work of more than 70 veterans who served in Vietnam, Gulf War I, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations on military missions.

In a poem titled "Back to Iraq," in the Warrior Writers collection, Army veteran Nathan Lewis describes the process in Warrior Writers workshops of writing about troublesome thoughts. In the last stanza, he writes:

Take the route and go back
Back for one minute
Back for one second
Just for a thought
Just for a memory
The rubble, the smoke, the man with the shovel
I visit them in memory so they don't visit me in sleep

Finding a Creative Community

Kevin Basl, an Army vet who served in Iraq and coedited the Warrior Writers collection, wrote about learning about the program while studying for an MFA in fiction writing at Temple University: “I discovered what I had been lacking: a genuine, face-to-face community where I could share my stories honestly, a place where I could understand my new identity. I found myself surrounded by friends to encourage me both in my art and in processing my war experience, to help rekindle a sense of purpose. This was something essential that no MFA program could provide.”

The Warrior Writers workshop approach has spread across the country, with sessions hosted by art centers, colleges, VA hospitals and military bases. The workshops are run by veterans and supporters under the guidance of Lovella Calica, who periodically offers training workshops in Philadelphia and other locations.

Upcoming Warrior Writers events are scheduled in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other locations. Combined workshops will be held with Combat Paper NJ at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other locations in the Washington, DC area.

“A lot of the Combat Paper workshops include a writing element based on Warrior Writers’ free writing style. It really is an immediate way to get thoughts and feelings and expression out from your head,” David Keefe, director of Combat Paper NJ and a Marine vet of Iraq, said in The Fog of War video.

Seema Reza, a poet who runs writing workshops for active duty soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, wrote an appreciation for the Warrior Writers program as an afterword in the 2014 anthology: “I have used the work from Warrior Writers anthologies in writing groups … and every single time, I witness change and a greater sense of clarity—both in myself and in participants.”

For more information:


Friday, February 12, 2016

Dust Devils

Dust devil off Route 50 in Nevada, June 2015  (photo: Jan Barry)
Route 50 across Nevada,
“Loneliest highway in America,”
They say. No cars or trucks in sight
As I pull to the side for a pit stop.
A dust devil is rising to the north
Way out over Willow Creek Ranch,
As I pee on a  sage bush
Near the sign at the cattle gate.
By my feet, a rusted tin can,
Broken remains of a beer bottle,
Cigarette butts crushed in the sand.

How many times I’ve been
On some road, traveling alone.
I enjoy the silence,
The views, the timelessness,
Communing with Nature.
Soon enough I’ll be back
Amid friends and family,
The whirl of daily life.

 Water spouts swirl to the south.
A ring of magnificent mountains
Embraces the desert basin.
Generations of travelers
Have trekked through here,
Seeking something else.
I’m on the road again,
Looking for the meaning of life.

A dust devil dances
Across the desert
And across the highway,
A whirling dervish
Swirling in front of the car,
Suddenly a bronze-gray ghost
I drive through.
--Jan Barry 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ford Cleanup in Torne Valley

Photos by Jan Barry

Just north of the New York State Thruway intersection with I-287 in Suffern, NY, a large swath of contaminated forest land is being cleaned up by Ford Motor Company. Acres of trees on a slope along Torne Brook, off Torne Valley Road, have been cut down and tons of soil tainted with lead-based paint sludge excavated. Bulldozers are now spreading clean topsoil in preparation for replanting a renewed forest in the spring.

This is the third substantial cleanup in the area of toxic waste from Ford’s former car and truck assembly plant that operated just over the border in Mahwah, NJ from 1955-1980. The current cleanup site arcs around the Ramapo Saltbox Environmental Research Center, which sits in a tiny copse of trees on a rise off Torne Valley Road. 

Just before Christmas, in conjunction with the winter solstice, a small crowd of environmental activists, environmental studies professors and students gathered at the center to celebrate the grassroots efforts that prodded Ford’s cleanup work.  

The cleanup site along Torne Brook is in a former sand and gravel pit where trees grew on top of buried paint sludge. Numerous pockets of buried sludge were identified and mapped out by Chuck Stead, a professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey who grew up in the area, with the assistance of students in classes he teaches at the state college. 

At the same time, Stead created the Ramapo Saltbox Environmental Research Center, organizing students at a number of schools and programs in the area to rebuild a 19th-century iron workers’ house that was moved to its present location. The current cleanup work is on Town of Ramapo open space lands near Harriman State Park. A municipal recreation center is a short distance downhill from the cleanup site. A long-closed municipal landfill, which was contaminated by industrial waste from numerous companies, is across the road. 

Well field site also cleaned up 

Two years ago, in response to the locally organized cleanup campaign, Ford contractors removed 42,000 tons of tainted soil from a sandy flood plain area further downstream where Torne Brook flows into the Ramapo River. The flood plain area hosts United Water Company wells that provide drinking water to much of Rockland County. 

In 2007, Ford contractors removed tons of soil contaminated from paint sludge that had been buried in another section of flood plain in a bend of the Ramapo River just north of the former assembly plant. Just downstream are wells for Mahwah’s municipal water system, which serves hundreds of homes, an array of public schools, dozens of restaurants, a number of major corporations and Ramapo College. 

Despite the threat to the area’s water supply, the toxic waste from the Ford plant was still in the ground and along streams where it was dumped decades ago, until recently. A campaign to clean it up was sparked by investigative reports by The Record of North Jersey in 2005 and 2006 that examined health concerns by residents of a former iron mining community in Ringwood, NJ where Ford contractors dumped hazardous material for years. The newspaper investigation, which I participated in and periodically updated, also raised concerns about the potential impact of toxic chemicals in the paint sludge on the nearby Wanaque Reservoir, which serves millions of New Jersey residents and businesses.

In response to renewed oversight of the Ringwood Mines Superfund Site by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Ford contractors excavated massive amounts of hazardous waste. Citing that cleanup action just over the mountain in New Jersey, officials and environmental activists in Rockland County demanded a cleanup of Ford industrial waste on the New York side of the border. Officials with the Town of Ramapo, where the bulk of Ford’s waste was dumped along the Ramapo River corridor, were particularly persistent. They gained support from county officials and the state departments of health and environmental conservation, which directed Ford to put together a comprehensive cleanup plan.

According to a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation report, paint sludge uncovered in the Torne Brook area exceeded health safety levels for Acetone, Benzene, Toluene, Ethyl Benzene, Xylene, Naphthalene, Inorganic Barium, Cadmium, Copper, Lead, Mercury, Nickel and Zinc.

For more information:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering Armistice Day

"The New Century," linocut on Combat Paper by Walt Nygard

Veterans Day Talk
On November 11, 1918, my grandfather
on my father’s side was on a stateside dock
with his Army unit about to ship out
to fight in France,
when word was received
that the war had just ended.
Armistice Day, they called it.
Sometimes you’re lucky in war;
sometimes not.

On November 11, 1944, my mother’s
brother was killed in a Navy dive bomber
that crashed into the sea in a battle
near the Philippines.
There was no armistice
that Armistice Day.

 Surviving war is no guarantee it’s over.
Never know when something from the war
may catch you unawares. A flare up,
a flashback, a smell from a bad day long ago. 

With two bitterly contested wars churning out
more wounded, more dead, more veterans,
there’s still no armistice
on Armistice Day.

Veterans Day, they call it now—
as though all those war emotions
can be contained in a holiday.    

In Vietnam, I was a Boy Scout
turned into Army radio specialist.
A communications breakdown
in a war zone can be fatal.
Communications failure among veterans
and our support network
of family and friends
can also have scary consequences.

 That’s what we need to talk about today,
after the parades, the bagpipes,
the drums and trumpets, the bugle calls,
the solemn speeches, the moment
of silence, the hearty drinks at the bar—
when memories of war
still intrude into our dreams, our lives.

--Jan Barry

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thao’s Library: Finding Life’s Purpose Amidst Loss

Thao and Elizabeth Van Meter at Thao's Library

Feeling depressed, given the state of the world/one’s life lately? Track down “Thao’s Library,” an astonishingly uplifting documentary about crawling out of despair and finding purpose in life that’s forever fractured. 

Actress Elizabeth Van Meter was devastated by her younger sister’s death by suicide. Then she saw a photo of a woman in Vietnam whose body was devastated by Agent Orange chemicals used by US military forces in the war, yet was cheerfully operating a homemade library for village children from her wheelchair. The photographer said the Vietnamese woman, Thanh Thao Huynh, had one request: some money for more books. 

Stumbling around New York City in a daze of grief, Van Meter felt drawn to help the disabled woman with her project in Cu Chi, a rural village near Ho Chi Minh City. This low-budget, low-key film tells the story of what happened next.

“ …it’s about building bridges with our friends in Vietnam,” Van Meter wrote in a poignant update on Facebook, “it’s about sharing stories about women made by women, it’s about introducing the world to my soul sister Thao, it’s about the acknowledgement of the ripple effect of war, it’s about love and the healing power of connection, it’s about resilience and forgiveness, it’s about the ability we all have to reach out and be of service to our brothers and sisters of the world with whatever gifts we’ve been given.”

Van Meter raised funds to provide a larger building next to Thao’s family’s farmstead to house a larger library and one-room school. Thao, as shown in the film, struggled to live without use of atrophied legs and found her calling in teaching young children how to read. She encourages those around her with her joy in living each day. 

At a recent showing in the Teaneck International Film Festival, audience members at the Puffin Cultural Forum were greeted by Van Meter, who directed the documentary. Her film is making the rounds of festivals and showings in some theaters. During the Q and A, she talked about feeling that her late sister, Vicki, was with her as she interacted with Thao. Vicki, famous at age 11 for flying an airplane across the US, killed herself at 26. 

“I feel as though the three of us made this film together,” Van Meter said in similar comments to an interviewer with Timeout in Chicago. “When we experience the loss of a loved one, especially in the way that Vicki chose to go, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. It's not necessarily about ‘closure’ but about evolving to a new place. The pain, the loss, it never goes away but my relationship to it evolves.”

For more information: