Decades After a Plant Closes, Ford’s Waste Remains
“… There were some who wanted to be vocal, but if you fought back against the state, local government and a major company like Ford, what was going to happen to you?” …”
By Ron Stodghill
International Herald Tribune, July 29, 2007
NEW YORK: In the summer of 2005, around the time that residents of Upper Ringwood, New Jersey, began to wonder whether the skin rashes, nosebleeds and bronchitis that plagued their community were more than bad luck, Ford Motor and the Environmental Protection Agency made a request: The automaker and the regulator wanted access to the yards around two families’ homes to remove waste that had been dumped in the area.
Ford boasts in its ads that “It’s Easy Being Green,” but residents feared that the request suggested something not so easy at all.
From the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, Ford operated an assembly plant in northern New Jersey, in nearby Mahwah, that cranked out millions of passenger cars. Ford closed the plant in 1980, after dumping what the EPA describes as thousands of tons of paint sludge and other waste in Upper Ringwood, a community of about 350 working-class residents near the Ramapo Mountains.
A few years later, the Environmental Protection Agency identified Upper Ringwood for priority cleanup under its Superfund program.
Ford, deemed responsible for the pollution, spent the next five years assessing and removing sludge from a 500-acre, or 200-hectare, site that included 50 homes.
Satisfied with Ford’s cleanup, the EPA dropped Upper Ringwood as a Superfund site in 1994, having determined, according to a public notice, that “no further cleanup by responsible parties is appropriate” and that “the current risk posed by the site is within an acceptable range.”
Yet recently, based on Ford’s and the EPA’s own recent follow-up studies of the soil and groundwater in Upper Ringwood, those conclusions unraveled and became fodder in what environmental experts say is now among the messiest industrial cleanup efforts in Superfund’s 27-year history.
Since the EPA relisted Upper Ringwood last year as a Superfund site, cleanup experts in the area have not only removed several thousand tons of waste that crews had previously overlooked, but workers have also identified substantial amounts of potentially hazardous paint sludge in the yards of at least two private homes, according to federal regulators and Ford.
Last year, residents sued Ford in a New Jersey state court for property damage and personal injuries, citing the improper disposal of waste from the Mahwah plant.
The lawsuit claims that Ford’s hazardous paint sludge and other contaminated material, while dumped decades ago, still contaminate the soil, air and groundwater in their community; that Ford failed to tell more than 600 residents how dangerous the waste was; and that Ford has yet to properly clean it up.
To make their case, residents have enlisted several high-profile legal experts and consultants, including the environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., the toxicologist James Dahlgren, who became known after the “Erin Brockovich” movie, and the law firm of the late civil rights lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
The lawyers contend in the suit that contaminated waste that Ford left behind has contributed to illnesses among residents like the diabetes that caused Paul Eugene VanDunk to have his leg amputated and the cancer that killed his daughter.
“This community was here long before Ford had anything to do with Upper Ringwood,” said Andrew Carboy, a lead lawyer for the residents. “Ford’s involvement here ended almost 40 years ago, but the community is still dealing with the health consequences of Ford’s dumping.”
Ford counters that its history of dumping in Upper Ringwood, which occurred for four years, was legal and authorized by town supervisors. It says it was just one of several companies that deposited waste in the area during the years that its Mahwah plant operated and that its dumping activities and recent cleanup efforts have not endangered the health of residents.
“Bronchitis could be caused by a number of things that have nothing to do with toxins,” said Alan Kraus, a lawyer representing Ford, during a recent court appearance. According to records of the proceedings, Kraus said he needed a medical history from each of the plaintiffs before turning over any records concerning the automaker’s waste disposal activities.
“To be honest, I’m not a doctor, but I don’t know whether bronchitis can be caused by toxins,” he said in court.
Citing the litigation, Ford executives declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement that “the company is working diligently to address remaining issues related to its past disposal activities.”
Ford also noted that “the borough of Ringwood used the site as a general dump before, during and after the four-year period that Ford-related waste materials were disposed at the site” and that recent surveys of the property “recorded the presence of non-Ford related miscellaneous wastes and debris on approximately half of all locations included in the survey.”
Ford contractors and EPA officials also say that residents here have been wary about granting access to their homes to remove potentially dangerous, brick-size shards of sludge.
“We understand that the residents in Ringwood do not trust the agency or Ford too much,” said Patricia Carr, an EPA spokeswoman. “But how can they voice concern about the health effects of the waste there for all these years and then not allow us access into their homes?”
Residents see things quite differently.
“Tell me what they can do to satisfy us for the lives that have been lost already?” asks Wayne Mann, a local activist and community leader. “How do you justify what they’ve done?”
The rustic community, an hour’s drive from New York City, is home to the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation, a tribe with roots in the area reaching back before the Revolutionary War.
The tribe maintains many traditions and has been slow to integrate; residents hunt deer and turkey and fish local streams for food. They also grow vegetables on small plots in their yards, and are not politically active – which played a part in Ford’s and the EPA’s inefficiency in cleaning the area, residents say.
Environmental advocates say that the significance of the fight between Ford and residents transcends Ford’s activities, plaintiffs’ lawyers’ claims of “environmental racism,” or so-called greenwashing efforts of companies with dubious environmental records to improve their images. They say it sheds light on the inherent limitations of the Superfund program, which has relied heavily on the scientific research and the purse strings of corporate polluters to clean up sites – limitations that have only been compounded by severe cuts recently in the EPA’s budget.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers also contend that Ford’s waste has contaminated a local reservoir that provides drinking water for 2.5 million people in the surrounding area. Ford denies that.
“This site is the poster child of corporate bad behavior and the inability of the EPA to really make corporate polluters do proper cleanup of sites,” said Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, an environmental advocacy group in New Jersey.
Ford’s waste, Spiegel said, “is polluting the drinking water for millions of people, yet it’s still unclear whether the EPA will ever force Ford into really cleaning it up.”
Roger DeGroat, 58, leaves the above-ground swimming pool outside his Upper Ringwood home empty because he’s afraid he might be filling it with contaminated water. He points at a purple rash on his arms to illustrate other fears. “I don’t know what these blotches are,” he says. “It scares me because my doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with me, either. I get dizzy for no apparent reason; my eyes itch.
“My children have nosebleeds so bad in their sleep that they wake up stuck to the bed, like they’ve been hit in the head or something,” he adds.
DeGroat, like many other residents here, says he believes that hazardous waste contributed to his family’s illnesses as well as elevated rates of leukemia, cancer, diabetes and asthma in other residents.
A line of trucks barrels past DeGroat’s house and disappears behind gates securing the work site where a business hired by Ford is cleaning Upper Ringwood. In recent months, workers have been removing sludge and investigating the possible presence of such hazardous substances as lead, arsenic, chromium, ethylbenzene and PCBs in local soil, according to the EPA.
Residents say that the cleanup makes their close-knit community feel like an occupied military zone, with the constant rumble of tank-size tractors drowning out the banter from children playing tag and hopscotch.
Despite the noise and the threat of illnesses, DeGroat says that he, like most of the American Indians who live here, can’t imagine relocating. Tribe members have maintained largely isolated lives (because, they say, of racial taunting and stereotyping from people outside their community) and are groomed to be suspicious of most outsiders.
After Ford built its Mahwah plant in 1955 and bought 800 nearby acres to build homes for its workers, it became among the largest employers in the area. In 1967, Ford hired a contractor to dispose of waste from the Mahwah plant. Court filings say that Ford’s agreement with the contractor “called for disposal of cardboard and other packing materials from the plant, scrap car parts, paint sludge and scrap and dented drums containing obsoleted hardened production sealing and insulating stock of noninflammable nature.” Ford says that state and local officials approved the dumping that occurred from 1967 to 1971.
Residents say that regardless of who approved the dumping, their lives were changed. “The way we were living is not how people live in the real world,” said Mann, who is also a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Ford. “There was trash everywhere. There were drums and chemicals all around, and trucks coming and dumping anywhere and everywhere. The Dumpsters would get so high that they would mysteriously burn for weeks.”
Starting in the late 1960s, Ford says it began divesting large portions of the dump site in Upper Ringwood. It donated 300 acres of land to the town government, which, it claims, allowed other companies to continue dumping on the site between 1972 and 1976 (at which point state regulators shut it down).
Joseph Maraziti, a lawyer representing the town government, said that after Ford left the area, the Upper Ringwood site was used for only household waste, not potentially toxic industrial waste. “As of this moment, there has been no identification of any hazardous material connected with that site other than Ford’s,” he said.
Ford closed its Mahwah plant in 1980. Two years later, New Jersey regulators discovered substantial levels of arsenic in local water samples and gave their findings to the EPA, which added Upper Ringwood to a national priorities list under its Superfund program. Ford’s cleanup crews arrived in Ringwood in 1983, but the company acknowledges that the process from the start was prolonged by extensive research and bureaucratic red tape.
“With the site sprawling over more than 500 acres, the EPA had to make decisions regarding how best to investigate, characterize and then address the disposal of hazardous substances on the site,” the company said in a statement.
Part of the problem, too, Ford and EPA officials say, was a steep learning curve in the remediation of Superfund sites, or as the 1980 law is called, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. Superfund was a response to public outcries in the 1970s over the discovery that about 22,000 tons of toxic waste had been dumped in the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York.
“There was no model out there and no mentors in cleaning up sites,” said Carr, the EPA spokeswoman. “The law was detailed and prescriptive, but nobody had any experience in how to do this.”
Among the most costly initial mistakes, Carr says, was the agency’s failure to involve residents in the cleanup. “In the early days, we didn’t have a lot of interaction with the residents in Ringwood and from that have learned to reach out earlier in the process,” she said.
Ford says it does not accept full responsibility for the lack of dialogue with the community. In its statement, the company says that “in the 1980s and early 1990s, neither the borough of Ringwood nor the residents expressed significant interest in the process to Ford.”
Residents don’t dispute that they were hesitant to speak out early on, but say they were silent because of fears of retribution. “When the berries and the fruit and the frogs started disappearing, I looked the other way,” Mann said.”Who is going to cry out when you are only renting and can be thrown out? There were some who wanted to be vocal, but if you fought back against the state, local government and a major company like Ford, what was going to happen to you?”
Ford said in a statement that even its best efforts to alleviate those fears during the more recent cleanup often proved ineffective. It said it helped the EPA set up a toll-free number early in the reinvestigation process that residents could use to anonymously report information regarding the location of paint sludge on the site. “The toll-free number was never used,” the company said.
But as Alan Steinberg, a regional EPA administrator, says: “Regardless of who was at fault for what, I find the situation to be heartbreaking. It’s obvious that some mistakes were made, that the site was cleaned up too quickly. We are in the process of correcting that mistake by supervising a very intensive cleanup effort by Ford.”
Some environmental experts and analysts say the biggest problem in cleaning Upper Ringwood, as well as the nation’s more than 1,000 other Superfund sites, stems from the depleted resources of the Superfund itself. Superfund’s budget was built on an excise tax on crude oil and chemicals used for manufacturing. The tax lapsed in 1995, and the trust fund has shrunk from $1.5 billion in 1994 to insolvency today – leaving the EPA struggling to find other sources of money to identify and assess the nation’s future cleanup needs, according to several recent studies. The EPA says that Superfund’s shrinking resources don’t undermine its ability to monitor corporate polluters and that companies themselves can adequately manage and police cleanups on their own.
The price tag for all of this remains large: according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, it will cost $20 billion to remediate the 142 largest Superfund sites.
Superfund has proved to be effective in spurring corporate polluters to pay for their own cleanups, analysts say. Rather than face fines of as much as three times the actual cost of a cleanup if the EPA undertook the effort on its own, most major corporate polluters have opted to clean the sites themselves. But that, in turn, has left the EPA dependent on corporate polluters to oversee and clean up problem sites.
“Funding of cleanups is a really central issue now that the tax fund has been depleted,” said Katherine Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan economic research group in Washington. “And there are issues about money, and issues about the future of the program, and questions about what you can expect to get in a cleanup these days.”
For its part, Ford says its efforts to clean the area through the years have been nothing less than rigorous and that the company’s voluntary decision to study the area’s ground and streams for pollutants after closing its plant reflects its overall commitment to making the area safe for residents.
The company says it is doing additional cleanup work at known landfill areas, including at two abandoned mine sites.
More specifically, the company said in a statement that contractors had removed several tons of paint sludge deposits from Upper Ringwood sites and that samples of soil, surface water, sediment and groundwater had shown that the sludge has not migrated into soils or water supplies.
But residents say other warning signs still concern them, despite assurances from Ford and the EPA. Earlier this year, for example, New Jersey health authorities warned residents not to hunt squirrels (a longtime staple of the local diet) after discovering a squirrel that was contaminated with lead.
Vivian Milligan, 55, said that the notification unnerved her and that she had not gotten satisfactory answers about why she had two miscarriages, an ulcer, and has high blood pressure. Or why her husband has had four of his toes amputated. Or why three of her cousins have each had a leg amputated.
“I really feel that there’s a connection between the contamination and all the health problems around here,” she says. “There’s just too many sick people for one little area.”