Eliot and Anna Zigmund have a problem. More than six years ago, they discovered that the old heating oil tank beneath their home in Teaneck, New Jersey, was leaking.
The couple embarked on an arduous quest to clean up the contamination left by the deteriorated tank. The process has cost them more than $600,000 to date, with no end in sight.
The Zigmunds shared their oil tank plight with more than 300 theatergoers at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, last Friday, recounting their compounding cleanup efforts and eliciting audible gasps from the crowd. Their struggle to remediate the slow–motion disaster had just been dramatized on stage by StoryWorks, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s theater-meets-journalism project through which we commission and stage original plays inspired by fact-based investigations.
In this case, the original investigation came from reporter Brenda Flanagan at NJTV News, who originally profiled the Zigmunds in a three-part series exposing an epidemic of leaking underground storage tanks across New Jersey.
In collaboration with George Street Playhouse, CIR co-produced two sold-out performances of Terra Incognita, an original play written by R.N. Sandberg and directed by Jim Jack, director of education and outreach at George Street. Sandberg used Kafka’s “The Trial” as inspiration to spin a dark comedy from the Zigmunds’ ordeal, using theater of the absurd to chronicle the real-life maze of insurers, licensed remediation professionals and government bureaucracy that the couple encountered through the years.
The Zigmunds aren’t alone in their experience. As Flanagan detailed in December, tens of thousands of fuel oil storage tanks are buried across the state. Many are old and have begun to leak. In serious cases like the Zigmunds’, the contamination threatens groundwater channels and requires extreme excavation.
Flanagan’s reporting was part of Dirty Little Secrets, a collaborative series facilitated by CIR to investigate New Jersey’s toxic legacy with media partners across the state, including New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University helped CIR coordinate the project, made possible by a grant to CIR from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
The Dirty Little Secrets collective explored a variety of ways that contamination is affecting New Jersey residents and the environment, from toxic sites that have no cleanup plan in place to chemical facilities along the state’s northern coast that are vulnerable to the next major storm.
Terra Incognita is the latest installment in the project, a means of sparking conversation with local residents about the oil tank epidemic and the other issues around local contamination raised in the Dirty Little Secrets reporting series. In the post-play conversation – StoryWorks’ “act two” for every production – several audience members shared their own experiences with oil tank remediation and asked questions about the cleanup process.
For the Zigmunds, the story isn’t over. They’re still waiting for clean results from tests of groundwater beneath their property. A member of the audience during last week’s performance asked the couple how they stayed sane, to which Anna replied, “We love each other very much.”