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.
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.
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.”