Kevin Riordan: His love for his state could fill a book

Tom Belton recounts 30 years as a New Jersey environmental scientist in his book, part memoir, part history, and partly a statement of green principles.
Tom Belton recounts 30 years as a New Jersey environmental scientist in his book, part memoir, part history, and partly a statement of green principles. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: November 27, 2011

Tom Belton remembers playing with his pals in the chromium waste that puddled the factory yards of his Jersey City neighborhood.

"My Keds would [turn] sickly yellow . . . with a whiff of brimstone and burnt rubber on them," he writes in his new book, Protecting New Jersey's Environment (Rivergate Books).

"We were just kids out for adventure," the author writes. "What did we know?"

Who knew that 31 years as a scientist for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection would be something of an adventure as well?

Or that writing the book would help him come to terms with the deaths of his father, at 67, and his younger brother, at 21. His brother had leukemia; his father, lymphoma.

"I wanted to tell my own story and tell about them," Belton says. "And I wanted to be honest with myself about why I became a scientist.

"I really was very angry [at] the industrial milieu we lived in," he continues. "But I began to realize it wasn't that simple. There was no one chemical or one exposure that causes a person to get cancer.

"Rather than trying to find someone to blame, it's just fate. We were all exposed to carcinogens, and some of us were unlucky enough to succumb [to cancer]. But others survived."

Now 62 and still with the DEP, Belton lives in Haddonfield with his wife, Bernadette Duncan, an attorney. They have two grown children.

Part memoir, part history, and partly a statement of green principles, his book is as straightforward as its soft-spoken, Irish Catholic author, a self-described city kid who loves protecting the environment of urban and rural New Jersey alike.

"I'm lucky I have a job that enables me to do both," he says.

After writing occasional freelance opinion pieces for newspapers, including this one, he decided about three years ago to write the book.

Belton realized he had amassed a wealth of research in the copious notes he made over three decades at public meetings and other events.

He'd been a witness to some of the state's biggest environmental battles, including the discovery of dioxin waste in Newark's Ironbound section in the 1980s.

"We wanted to get the message out, so that pregnant women wouldn't eat the fish and get exposed to toxins," Belton says.

The book describes how the young scientist tried to tell a bunch of lobstermen at a meeting near Sandy Hook why the state was circumscribing their livelihood.

"I suddenly realized the only way out of that room was through that angry crowd of men," Belton writes.

When someone yelled an obscenity, Belton's colleague Tom Burke cooled things off by talking about a friend who served in Vietnam, where soldiers suffered from exposure to the dioxin in Agent Orange.

"It was one of the scariest moments of my life," Belton says.

What he didn't witness, he researched, including the famous "radium ladies" of a watch-painting factory in 1920s Orange and a now-forgotten fire involving a nuclear missile at Fort Dix in 1960.

Other stories are recent, such as PCB cleanup that enabled Camden's "Nipper" building to be reborn as an upscale apartment complex.

Despite sometimes stunning tales of just how profoundly New Jersey has mistreated its environment, Belton's book is written by a man who clearly loves his work - and the state he calls home. It's an essentially upbeat story of a hard-fought public consensus and bipartisan political will.

But the real heroes of the tale are the anonymous civil servants he calls "eco-warriors," who, among other accomplishments, have nursed a decimated bald eagle population back to vitality in the Garden State.

These and other stories have won Protecting New Jersey's Environment praise from the state Council for the Humanities, which it named one of its Honor Books of the year.

"He made a book that seems on its face to be all about science into a human story," says Mary Rizzo, the council's interim executive director.

Says Belton: "I did a double take when I heard about the award. But I really did want to make the story accessible."

He did.


Kevin Riordan:

Tom Belton, scientist and author, talks about dangers in New Jersey's environment at

www.philly.com/belton


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com,

or @inqkriordan on Twitter.

Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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