Kaelyn Forde for Al Jazeera America

Ford pays for Ramapough tribe medicine garden on former toxic site

Once near the largest auto plant in the US, it needed a $15 million hazardous waste cleanup

RAMAPO, N.Y. — Vincent Mann’s voice echoed across the clearing of trees as people knelt in the soft earth, sweetgrass plants in their hands. Some stopped and held up the plants to pray before placing them in a spiral on land that the Ramapough Lenape nation has called home for thousands of years.

“Blow, blow Ramapough wind. Blow like you’re never going to blow again, coming to you like a long lost friend. We know who we are. And we wear turtle scars,” Mann sang, the soft beating of a drum accompanying him.

Mann, chief of the Turtle Clan, and other members of the Ramapough tribe joined environmental scientists and community leaders on June 8 to plant a sacred medicine garden on land that was once among the most contaminated in the state. The Ford Motor Co. paid for the medicine garden.

More than four decades ago, Ford dumped millions of gallons of toxic paint sludge in the woods surrounding the site of its Mahwah, New Jersey, assembly plant, now closed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When it opened, the plant was the largest in the U.S., and more than 6 million cars rolled off the assembly line there from 1955 to 1980. But with large-scale production came large-scale pollution. Decades later, some of that toxic sludge remains, full of lead, benzene arsenic and chromium.

“We picked this site for the medicine garden because the massive core of the lead paint was at this site,” Chuck Stead, an environmental scientist, told the gathering. “Forty-two thousand tons of hazardous waste were removed from our well field, and it cost us nothing. It cost Ford $15 million.”

Stead and Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to negotiate a full cleanup of the well field site by Ford in 2013.

“We pushed Ford Motor Co. very hard to come to the table with us. And after many years of back and forth, they did ameliorate this site and remove all the contamination that was here,” said St. Lawrence.

“We also pushed Ford a little bit to have a healing garden here, to kind of rectify and use this moment in time as a tipping point from the incredible degradation that has been done here,” he added.

A Ford representative scheduled to speak at the event did not attend.

“Ford agreed to do this as part of our ongoing efforts to work cooperatively with the community,” Jon Holt, a Ford spokesman, said in an email after the event, adding that the remediation project manager scheduled to attend the event had a personal obligation. 

Other sites left waiting

In other parts of the Ramapo Mountains, the paint sludge remains. One of the company’s biggest dump sites, in Ringwood, New Jersey, has yet to be fully cleaned up. Many members of the Ramapough tribe want to see contamination removed completely from Ringwood, as it was from the Ramapo well field.

Ramapough Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann sings at the opening of the Ramapo Well Field Medicine Garden.
Kaelyn Forde for Al Jazeera America

“I asked Ford, ‘If you’re doing something here in Ramapo and it’s working, then why not there in Ringwood?’ And they didn’t really want to answer. They said it was basically two separate things, but it’s not,” Mann said. “The stuff that is in the mines there travels through the little brooks and streams that are there during the wet season, and they all filter down to the Wanaque Reservoir that provides water for 4 million people every single day.”

Holt confirmed that Ford does not intend to build a medicine garden on every cleaned site. “This was a community project request specific to this site,” he said.

Three years after the Ford plant shut its doors in 1980, the EPA put the company’s dump sites in Ringwood on its Superfund list of the most contaminated sites in the United States. After declaring that the Ringwood sites had been appropriately cleaned in 1994, the EPA found much more contamination. Ringwood was restored to the Superfund list in 2006. The latest EPA cleanup plan for Ringwood is estimated to cost $46.7 million, paid for by Ford.

“Ford has been working cooperatively with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to develop a final remediation plan for the Upper Ringwood site,” Holt said. “The EPA is expected to make a record of decision on the final plan sometime this year.”

The Ramapough said that exposure to the toxic chemicals on the land they use to hunt, fish and grow food has given the approximately 3,500 members of the tribe in the area higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems. Many of the tribal elders remember playing on the brightly colored sludge as children.

“In Ringwood we have easily lost 30 percent of our elders,” said Dwaine Perry, chief of the Ramapough Lenape nation. “In a big way, the Ford Corp. has robbed us of our elders, which is basically robbing us of our culture. Because if you have no one to share it with, it dies out.”

A study by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 2011 found that the “incidence of specific cancers was not elevated” in Ringwood, compared with the rest of New Jersey.

Ramapough tribal leaders are pushing state and federal authorities for a comprehensive health study that compares the cancer rate of Ramapough living in Ringwood with the cancer rate of Ramapough in uncontaminated Stag Hill, New Jersey.

Question of health

St. Lawrence said the town of Ramapo is also pushing for a health assessment.

“We know that this population that lives here in these Ramapo Mountains has been greatly affected and in Ringwood even more so,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think the New York State Department of Health has been stepping up to the table to deal with this. But I think we can categorize the effect on the population now, even generations since those initial deposits of really toxic material were dumped in the form of this paint sludge.”

Ramapough clan mother Vivian Milligan.
Kaelyn Forde for Al Jazeera America

For Vivian Milligan, a Ramapough clan mother who has lost many family members to aggressive cancers, healing cannot begin until Ford takes responsibility for the health problems.

“Ford can never ever make enough money to give us back what it has cost us. We have lost a lot. We have lost a lot of family members, and they are priceless,” she said.

Mann said he would like to see Ford build a health center for the Ramapough as well.

“My hope is to see these lands returned to the way that they were. Obviously colonization has changed it forever — but as far as us being able to utilize the land, to live on it, to walk on it, to fish, to eat the vegetables that grow wild and to grow our medicinal plants,” he said.

“My hope before I cross over is to see the land cleaned and for our people be able to prosper and start to live long lives again,” Mann added.

Stead, a cancer survivor, thanked Ford for the Ramapo cleanup and said the company has promised to build a medicine garden wherever there is full remediation.

“It’s important that we are here, because we are a people of place,” he told those gathered at the site of the medicine garden. “As a Ramapough elder once told me, ‘I would never move from here. The earth is ill, and so I am ill, and why would I leave my sick relative?’” 

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