Ford's Ringwood disgrace

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Special report: Toxic Legacy

THE tons of toxic waste that the Ford Motor Co. buried in the mountainsides of Ringwood and elsewhere more than three decades ago are an environmental time bomb lodged in the heart of our watershed.

As the five-part series that begins today in The Record explains, huge amounts of this toxic paint sludge - laced with lead, volatile organic compounds and other dangerous chemicals - still lie buried. And the federal government, which declared Ringwood a Superfund site, has allowed Ford to get away with shoddy cleanups time and time again.

This sludge continues to pose a major health threat to the enclave of Ringwood residents who live on the mountain. And it is leaching into the groundwater, posing a long-term threat to the Wanaque Reservoir and the hundreds of thousands of North Jersey residents supplies. This is outrageous.

How could Ford get away with this for so long when the foul-smelling sludge was literally under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's nose? Both Ford and the feds must be held accountable. It is long past time for a federal criminal investigation into the sludge dumping and puny cleanup efforts.

Ford CEO William Clay Ford Jr. likes to brag about his concern for the environment. The corporate Web site boasts: "We are a leader in environmental responsibility. Our integrity is never compromised ... "

That's a pile of sludge. In this Ringwood scandal, Ford is nothing better than a polluter that has tried to evade responsibility for decades. And the EPA has stood by and let it happen.

That must end. Now.

Three questions demand an immediate answer.

How, once and for all, will Ford and the federal government be forced to scrape the Highlands clean of this toxic sludge?

How will they determine what impact this chemical stew has had on the health of the people who have lived in its midst for decades?

How will they make sure our drinking water is not compromised?

Rep. Scott Garrett, R-Sussex, whose constituency includes the Ramapoughs, is in a perfect position to help bring about a solution to this despicable situation. As a conservative, he enjoys respect both in the Republican Party and the Bush administration.

In the interests of his constituents and in doing what is right, Mr. Garrett should step up and apply pressure on the EPA to bring about a real cleanup. He should also press for a federal criminal investigation.

State Environmental Commissioner Bradley Campbell must also perform a major role. He needs to have his agency take charge of determining the extent of paint-sludge contamination and make sure that Ford and the feds do a comprehensive job of cleaning things up.

Three months ago, Mr. Campbell requested a federal criminal investigation into Ford's actions, but the state historically has taken a backseat to the feds on the Ringwood road to nowhere. It must do far more.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., one of the few people in this state who has consistently pushed for doing the right thing in Ringwood, can also be helpful. As a Democrat, he does not wield much power in Washington. But by speaking out on a continuing basis, he can embarrass both Ford and the Republicans in Washington into doing a comprehensive cleanup.

Similarly, the two candidates for governor, Republican Doug Forrester and Democrat Jon Corzine, need to speak out much more forcefully and frequently about the Ringwood situation. Mr. Forrester is in a unique position to get the Bush administration to act since the president would like so much for him to win in November.

The Record's series shows the devastating effect this toxic paint sludge has had on the insular community known as the Ramapoughs.

For years, they have lived with this industrial sludge - the toxic residue from Ford's gigantic automotive plant in Mahwah. Several generations of Ramapoughs have been exposed to poisons such as arsenic and antimony. Their children used to take discarded car hoods and slide down the artificial hillsides of sludge, then return with nosebleeds - a typical symptom of chromium poisoning.

Throughout the community, cancer rates are elevated, and residents have developed an alphabet's worth of deadly tumors. Yet health officials still refuse to go from house to house to catalogue the diseases. "That's not how we operate," said Arthur Block of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "We don't do individual health assessments."

So who does? And what are they waiting for?

If this had happened in ritzy Ridgewood, not rural Ringwood, the residents would have received help years and years ago.

Finally, what safeguards are being put in place to make sure our drinking water supplies aren't tainted beyond the damage thus far? Tests conducted by The Record found lead, arsenic and benzene - some at levels 100 times the level considered safe - in the watershed. And there are concerns that the pollutants are slowly migrating toward the reservoirs.

The Ramapo Mountains, which form the backbone of the Highlands watershed in northern New Jersey, should be the most pristine land in the region.

Instead, a swath in Ringwood that includes state parkland is still among the most polluted areas in the entire nation - even though Ford and the feds were supposed to clean it up nearly 20 years ago.

Maybe they've gotten away with it all these years. But you can be sure of this. Because of The Record's investigation, they can't get away with it anymore.

TOMORROW: How Ford and the EPA botched the cleanup.