Chuck Stead is a tall man with an easy smile and a booming voice that rises from underneath his wide-brimmed leather hat. On a cold February morning, Stead stood outside the Ramapo Saltbox, a cabin perched on the slope of New York’s Torne Valley, where he runs an environmental research center with the help of Cornell University.
Ever since he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and given just a few months to live last year, Stead has increased the pace of his work documenting what he calls the “toxic legacy” left in these woods by the Ford Motor Co.
“It’s not unusual to have cancer here. I don’t treat it as ‘Why me?’ It’s more like, ‘Well, yeah. It’s what happens,’” Stead, now in remission, said. “I trapped all through this creek here. I skinned all of these animals, so I was exposed to whatever they were exposed to, and we ate some of the animals. Years later, I got my intestinal cancer and my liver cancer. If you look up the cancers and then you look up the compounds that are in the automobile paint, you have a correlation right there.”
Ford produced more than 6 million cars at its plant in nearby Mahwah, N.J., from 1955 to 1980. Automobile paint containing lead, arsenic, benzene, chromium and other chemicals was sprayed on the cars rolling off Ford’s assembly line. But with large-scale production came large-scale pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ford dumped millions of gallons of paint sludge in the woods surrounding Mahwah. More than 40 years later, some of the paint sludge is still there.
Among the largest dump sites were two abandoned iron mines and a landfill in Ringwood, N.J. The paint sludge is still visible in hardened lavalike pools on the forest floor, stuck between rocks and cascading down hills. Break off a chunk of the dried paint sludge and the smell of acetone is almost as potent as ever, Stead said. The paint was dumped into 55-gallon drums and then carted to places like Ringwood and Hillburn, N.Y. Some of the rusted-out drums are still visible in the woods.
“You would get $100 to make six drums disappear off of the back of the dock. Sometimes they would dump the paint directly into a trench and fill it in. That’s what I saw when I was a kid trapping up here,” Stead said.
Contamination from the paint sludge has made him and many other people here sick, he said, and no one has been harder hit than the Ramapough Indians, who have called this land home for centuries.