Keepers of the Pass

Keepers of the Pass – a case of environmental racism.
May 1, 2006

On April 12, 2006, 12 years after the federal Environmental Protection Agency had signed-off on the Ford Motor Company’s apparent clean-up of a toxic waste site in Ringwood, New Jersey, the site in the Ringwood Mines area has been re-listed on the EPA’s National Priorities list of its Superfund Program.  It is the first time in the Superfund Program’s history that a site has been re-listed.

The EPA’s Superfund list is a ranking of the nation’s worst environmental disasters.

Ford had used the Ringwood Mines area, a secluded area of Ringwood situated around two iron-ore mines dating back to the Revolutionary War, as a dumping ground in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s for toxic waste from its near-by auto-manufacturing plant in Mahwah, NJ.

Ford closed the plant in Mahwah in 1980.  During a recent tour of the clean-up site, Ford spokesman, Jonathan Holt, said that it was soon after the plant’s closing that, “in the spirit of being a good corporate citizen, Ford alerted the EPA about the potential hazards the materials could have on the environment and on people’s health.”

After four clean-up attempts of the site the EPA declared the area clean and took Ringwood off its Superfund list. But significant amounts of paint sludge and other material from the Ford plant continued to surface, and on closer inspection were discovered throughout the area around the Ramapough Mountains, areas that Ford had not informed the EPA about having dumped on. Holt says that is because Ford had hired an independent contractor to haul the waste and was not aware of the dumping outside of the designated area, or “legal disposal area,” around Ringwood’s mineshafts.

Local residents of the Ringwood mine area have been demanding that Ford resume the clean up.  They also demanded proper federal and state over-site of the clean up. On January 19th, 2006, attorneys filed a lawsuit (Wayne Mann v. Ford Motor Company, et al) on behalf of 717 current and former residents of the Ringwood mind area for property damage and personal injury.

Ford, together with the EPA, resumed the clean up last year.  But Ringwood residents, having lost all trust and confidence in the EPA, have asked New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection to oversee the clean-up as well as testing of soil, surface water and groundwater for contaminants.   Indeed, it was the DEP’s discovery of lead and arsenic above safe drinking water levels in both ground and surface water back in 1982 that initiated the EPA to take action and add Ringwood to its National Priorities List in 1983.

Ringwood residents also filed an Environmental Justice Petition with the DEP – most residents of the Ringwood Mine area are members of the Ramapough Mountain Tribe, recognized by the states of New York and New Jersey as a Native-American tribe.

The Environmental Justice Petition enables the community to be heard as a “community of colour,” and guarantees DEP involvement and over-site in the clean-up:  “It means equal treatment for everybody … it recognizes that communities of colour have been disproportionately burdened by environmental impacts… race plays a major role in what has happened to this community in Ringwood,” explained the DEP’s Environmental Justice Coordinator Maria Franco-Spera after a conference on environmental justice at Ramapo College, in Mahwah, NJ.

The environmental Justice Petition also enables an affected community to get funding, sometimes in the form of grant money, for testing.  Ringwood residents had hired an independent environmental organization  called the Edison Wetlands Association, and its engineers, to test the soil and water for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) such as the lead and arsenic that had already been found.   The EDW’s testing discovered elevated levels of numerous carcinogenic materials.  Indeed, three generations of the Ramapough in Ringwood and surrounding towns where Ford had evidently dumped its waste, have been sick and dying from cancers and other diseases that are linked to the toxins that are present in the waste.

A specialist in toxic environments and considered the “father” of the environmental justice movement, Professor Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University, said at the Ramapo College conference on environmental justice that, “Ringwood is a classic example of an environmental justice case.”

The terms “environmental justice” and “environmental racism” were coined in the late 1980’s after a ground-breaking study by the United Church of Christ revealed that there was a direct correlation between the placement of a toxic waste site and race.  That is, hazardous waste sites were much more likely to be placed near a community of colour, then by a white community of the same class and income-level.

That led to the enactment of former President Bill Clinton’s executive order in 1994 calling for, “each Federal agency to make achieving environmental justice part of its mission.”

As members of the Ramapough tribe battle asthma, lead poisoning, birth defects, cancer and other serious health problems, the tribes Chief, Anthony Van Dunk, who represents more than 5000 descendants of the Delaware Lenape Ramapough who are now scattered throughout the world, calls Ford’s actions, “an attempted genocide on our people.”

His justification for using the term genocide lies both in the history of his people’s experience with racism and segregation, as well as the fact that not only in Ringwood but also in neighbouring towns, which members of the tribe call home, have seen Ford’s haulers, as well as haulers from other industries, dump toxic materials near the Ramapoughs’ homes.

Across the New York State border in Hillburn, NY, local residents say that every home has family-members sick with some kind of cancer, or even multiple cancers such as stomach cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia.  All the men who lived along 6th Street, just down the road from the municipal dump, which was also next to the town’s reservoir, have died of cancer at young ages.  Three baby boys born in the last nine years on 6th Street were born with a rare birth defect, hypo-spadia, which can be caused by such chemicals as phthalates if they are present in the mother’s womb.

Phthalates were commonly used in cosmetics.  Bill Powell, a life-long Hillburn resident, worked as a hauler for Avon in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Powell  says trucks for haulers for Ford and Avon and other industries would line-up at the municipal dump site.  The haulers were instructed to open-up all the containers of the material they were carrying and pour it without discretion into the dump.  Paint sludge containing a cocktail of toxins mixed with benzene and petrol, paint thinners, and materials used in making cosmetics all mixed together.  Fires would often start on their own amidst the mix of chemicals and glass bottles and cardboard.

Residents in Hillburn are taking their cue from their “cousins” across the border in Ringwood, calling for action by the Department of Health for testing.  They are also talking to the lawyers who filed the Ringwood lawsuit.

But a recent altercation that resulted in local Park Rangers shooting and killing one tribe-member and injuring another have put efforts both in Ringwood and Hillburn on hold.  The Ramapough have called for a criminal investigation of the case  – the state parks in New Jersey fall under the jurisdiction of the DEP, the very agency that is there to act as an advocate for the Ramapough in Ringwood in regard to the clean up.

As for the Ramapough ever getting federal recognition as a native-American tribe:  that has also been a decade-long struggle.  If the Ramapough were to be designated as a Native-American tribe by the federal government then Ford’s dumping on their land would be considered a violation of one of the environmental justice movement’s key principles – the principle that recognizes a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government.

Ford’s dumping in Ringwood and in Hillburn, and the adverse effects it has had on both the environment and on people’s health may prove to have violated many more of the key principles of the environmental justice movement, including:  a violation of the demand that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias; a violation of the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples;   violation of the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation;  and the violation of the rights of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.

With all the set-backs and opposition that his people have faced, Chief Van Dunk has charged his people with assuming responsibility for their fate and that of their land, that the clean-up is seen through to a successful end, but he is skeptical:  “ There are no guarantees.  You always hope that people will do what they say, but our past experience shows us that that is not the case.  We really need to be stewards and no longer play the child to parent role.  We must find a way to overcome this situation where mother earth is being poisoned to the point where she cannot heal herself.”

Van Dunk believes that the state and government agencies have finally taken decisive action because there is a question as to whether or not the contamination may find its way to the reservoir, which provides drinking water to 2.5 million people.  The reservoir lies downstream from the dumpsite.  Undoubtedly the lawsuit against that could amount to over $2 billion has also helped to that end.

But the Ramapough are still waiting for important test results of the soil and water, which will determine whether or not they will get funding for further critical health screening.

Despite it all, the Ramapough have pledged that they will not leave their native land in the Ramapo Mountains.

Video of the Documentary film “Keepers of the Pass” still to come.