Vincent Mann

EPA finalizes $45 million paint sludge cleanup plan

Agency commits funds, but Ramapough tribe is concerned plan doesn’t go far enough to remedy Ford’s toxic legacy

RINGWOOD, N.J. — The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized a $44.8 million cleanup plan for three heavily contaminated sites once used by the Ford Motor Co. to dump hazardous waste that have been at the center of a long-running and controversial environmental fight in New Jersey and New York.

According to the EPA, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ford dumped millions of gallons of toxic paint sludge containing lead, arsenic, chromium and benzene in abandoned iron mines, landfills and forests surrounding its Mahwah assembly plant in the New Jersey borough of Ringwood, near the border with New York.

Under the final EPA plan, 22,000 tons of contaminated material will be removed from the mouth of Peter’s Mine Pit, and the Cannon and Peter’s Mine Pits will be capped. That means the hazardous material will not be completely excavated from the mine pits, which are several hundred feet deep and contain as much as 250,000 cubic yards of contamination, according to EPA Superfund director Walter Mugdan.

Capping is significantly cheaper than completely removing the material, but EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez insisted cost was only one of nine criteria the EPA considers when it proposes cleanup plans for Superfund sites, which are heavily contaminated areas designated for special cleanup efforts.

“When you are dealing with a risk, which is what we have to examine, it’s about both the toxicity of contaminants you are examining and the exposure of the contaminants to people. When you have these pits that have such a difficult exposure pathway, that’s a fact we have to consider when determining a remedy,” said Rodriguez.

But many local residents, including members of the Ramapough Lenape Indian tribe, have voiced concerns that capping and leaving the contamination underground could pose a threat to groundwater. The Wanaque Reservoir, which provides drinking water for more than 3.5 million people in northern New Jersey, is south of the dump sites.

“I think that it’s absolutely ludicrous,” Ramapough Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann said. “The town of Ringwood and Ford together are working against us. Obviously, they are trying to get an easy way out. They say it wasn’t about money, but it obviously must be.”

Chuck Stead, an environmental scientist who worked with the nearby town of Ramapo, N.Y., to get Ford to completely excavate more than 42,000 tons of contaminated material, said the caps are a temporary solution. “It’s unconscionable,” he said. “They are kicking a problem down the road, and it will be the problem of generations to come.”

The EPA declared that Ford had completely cleaned the 500-acre Ringwood site in 1994, but after residents found much more paint sludge, the agency relisted it as a Superfund site. The finalized plan is estimated to take more than two years and should be the final cleanup, according to the EPA. 

The town of Ringwood and Ford together are working against us. Obviously, they are trying to get an easy way out. They say it wasn’t about money, but it obviously must be.

Vincent Mann

chief, Ramapough Turtle Clan

Ford spokesman Jon Holt told Al Jazeera the company “takes its environmental responsibility seriously” and has “worked cooperatively with the EPA and state officials” to clean up the site since it was relisted. Holt said that the firm did an extensive survey of the site and that “based on those findings, there is a comprehensive cleanup that we have been doing for several years.”

The EPA said the water in the Wanaque Reservoir is routinely tested and is not contaminated. But Stead and others fear the contamination may eventually leach out of the mines. “Groundwater changes depth all the time, and groundwater moves much more slowly than surface water. So it may take 10 years for the volatile organic compounds to show up in Wanaque Reservoir. But it’s not a matter of if — it’s a matter of when,” he said.

“The caps may secure the material from moving along the surface,” Stead added. “But the primary issue is that these are deep mine shafts. There are known fissures, and then there are hundreds — maybe thousands — of unknown fissures in the rock base after 30 or 40 years of blasting. It’s a labyrinth these chemicals will leach out from.”

He said he is also concerned about volatile organic compounds that will be released in the off-gassing from the capped mines.

The EPA plan allows the borough of Ringwood to build a recycling center on top of one of the largest dump sites, known as the O’Connor disposal area. The EPA considered completely removing about 106,000 tons of contaminated soil from the area at a cost of more than $26 million but will instead cap and consolidate some of the waste underground if the recycling center is built. Capping the area will cost an estimated $5.3 million.

Vivian Milligan, a Ramapough clan mother and member of the EPA’s community advisory group, lives just a few minutes’ walk from the Peter’s Mine. She said she used to hunt and gather food on the land and wants to see the O’Connor disposal area completely cleaned.

“It comes down to the dollar, and the whole situation is based on what they would have to pay for a decent cleanup instead of putting up a recycling center,” said Milligan. “It was the town and Ford’s responsibility to clean it up, and the town has insurance for that purpose.”

“My greatest hope still is that they will clean up O’Connor landfill and give us back our land. We had fruit trees. It was our hunting grounds. Our fishing rights have been taken away. I just want my family to come back to the way we have known about living — living off the land as well as going to a grocery store,” she said. 

The EPA declared the area around Mahwah cleaned in 1994, but much dried sludge remains.
Vincent Mann

The state-recognized Ramapough tribe maintains that the contamination has given its approximately 3,500 members higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems. Using church records, Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann said he and other members of the tribe tracked ages at death from 1939 to the present.

“Our life expectancy has dropped by 20 years since 1969. How can that be right? They know exactly what they got going on here, and they need to fix it,” he said. “What has happened here is an atrocity, and it’s still happening.”

In 2006, 633 Ringwood residents, including Mann and Milligan, sued Ford for the toxic dumping. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2009 for $12.5 million, with $11 million paid by Ford and $1.5 million paid by the borough of Ringwood. The suit’s lawyers received $2.3 million of the settlement, according to court records, and many plaintiffs received as little as $4,368.

Proving that the health problems are the result of the contamination remains an uphill battle for the tribe, Stead said. He suffered from intestinal and liver cancer, which he attributes to eating wild game contaminated by the paint sludge.

A health study conducted by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said it did not find higher rates of cancer among the Ramapough in Ringwood. But the tribe is pushing for a comparative health study that would compare illness rates between its members living in Ringwood and those in uncontaminated Stag Hill, New Jersey.

Milligan said she plans to keep fighting. “What we have lost — it’s something we can’t get back for all the money in the world. We have younger generations that we hope can grow up and see some age in life. I have lost a sibling. I have lost a lot of family members, and it really hurts. I spend more time in a funeral home than I ever thought I would,” she said.

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