Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tracking a Toxic Legacy of Hidden Dump Sites

By Alexa Rivera

“On the other side of the hill a spring-fed stream once ran clear and fresh. For generations, it quenched the thirst of the mountain’s residents, the Ramapoughs. Now the water is bright orange and laced with cancer causing benzene.”

This quote is from “Toxic Legacy,” a 2005 investigative series by the "Bergen Record."After months of examination, a group of reporters from The Record produced a story called "Toxic Legacy." The story portrayed the immense damage to environmentally sensitive places caused by Ford Motors Inc.The damage had already spread into many places in North Jersey and New York State before Ford closed its Mahwah assembly plant in 1980. 

A toxic amount of waste was dumped into forests and other areas of Ringwood, as well as surrounding towns in North Jersey, Rockland County and other areas in a wide region. The pollution produced by Ford Motors caused lead and volatile organic chemical contamination in the heart of the Ramapo River’s most important watershed. 

“There’s an entire ecosystem in Torne Valley that has been impacted upon, not just by Ford,” said Professor Chuck Stead, Natural Resource Educator of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Torne Valley is a short distance upstream from Mahwah, where Torne Brook flows into the Ramapo River in Hillburn, NY. 

Stead has been an adjunct professor at Ramapo since 1998 and is currently working on his doctorate degree in Environmental Studies at Antioch University in New Hampshire. Stead has been conducting soil contamination research with his students at Ramapo College. 

 “For over 10 years we’ve been looking at the lead paint contamination of the groundwater and the soil in various Brownfields that Ford Motor Company committed,” said Stead. 

Stead witnessed the contamination as a child. He tracked the areas that were affected and logged it. “My students and I went back to those places and based on that log, we had a starting point for finding paint material and we found hundreds of tons of lead paint in the watershed,” he said. 

Initially, Stead and his students were on a hunt to find the areas where the contamination resided. The idea was to show his students how to recognize disturbed terrain, how to find areas where the paint is, how to probe it and most importantly how to connect it to Ford Motors products. 

Along with Antioch University, Stead developed a way to date the time the paint was dumped by identifying the age of the trees that grew on top of the paint. “My students and I covered a whole area in Torne Valley. We identified 16 sites and identified the times. What was important about that was we did this in 2007 and the trees dated back 37 years or slightly older,” said Stead. 

It is known that Ford contributed to the massive amount of contamination in the forest and watersheds in North Jersey. “But because the trees were of that range, it identified that the paint had to have been dumped when the property was owned by an independent [company] that was in league with Ford,”  he said. 

In an effort to improve the affected areas, Stead started another project with his students. BOCES of Rockland County, Ramapo College and Stead have put together a job/skills program that coincides with restoration, design and construction of a 19th century Saltbox house in Torne Valley that has been turned into an environmental education center. 

“The building is now up and the outside is completed. We are just working on the inside,” said Stead. Besides soil contamination research, Stead and his students will use the site for environmental education classes and do an in-depth study of the flora and fauna because they’ve been contaminated as well. 

Not only is this contamination affecting the wildlife, but the residents who live in these areas are also being affected. “The Ramapough Indians' health has been permanently damaged, not just in Ringwood, but in Mahwah, Hillburn and other places as well,” said Stead. 

The paint has a catalog of exotic compounds that contribute to residents' illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and asthma, to name a few. 

“Anyone exposed to these exotic compounds are put in harm’s way and this exposure carries through from generation to generation,” said Stead. “Ford is big and we’ll be researching Ford’s contamination for a long time."

After years of research and examination of the paint sludge and lead contamination, Ford has made efforts to clean up the mess they made. The Rockland County Times reports that Ford Motor Company has begun waste cleanup in Torne Valley along the Ramapo River.

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