Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Toxic Legacy: Environmental Justice

By Tiffany Liang

Take a globe, spin it around, and let your finger land on this exotic location: Ringwood, New Jersey. The Garden State is known for a number of things. One thing that comes to mind is gateway to New York City. Another might be Jersey Shore. A few cynics might even call the state a giant dumping ground. They would be correct.

In 1980, Ford Motors shut down a manufacturing plant in Mahwah, about half an hour from Ringwood. The factory no longer exists. Instead, it left something evil percolating in the soil. In an era before Superfund, before the National Environmental Policy Act, polluters were free to discard wastes in any way they saw fit. In Ford’s case, they disposed of their toxic paint sludge in the cheapest way possible—they dumped it in nearby fields and woods.

In 1983, the Ringwood area was listed as a Superfund site. Under the EPA’s oversight, Ford cleaned up pockets of the sludge, and in 1994, Ringwood was delisted. But then, the EPA did something it had never done before. It put the site back on the list. The latest proposal of remediation involves putting a cap over two of the main dumping sites in Ringwood: Peters Mine and Cannon Mine. The third spot, the O’Connor disposal site, will be used as backfill for the mines once the sludge has been cleaned up.

This is a classic example of an emerging concern called environmental justice.

Three subtribes of Ramapough Lenape Indians live in Ringwood, Mahwah, and Hillburn. They are by no means rich, and they are not registered in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Turtle clan lives on top of the Superfund site in Ringwood. Residents complain of strange smells coming from Peter’s Mine. A recycling center sits directly across from the O’Connor disposal site. Sink holes litter the residential area by Cannon Mine.

The Turtle Clan has had it. The Deer clan in Hillburn, New York got Ford to completely remove its paint sludge in areas along the Ramapo River. Capping may be the cheapest, no-hassle solution, but the toxic sludge will continue leaching lead, benzene, and arsenic. To add insult to injury, the Environmental Justice section of the EPA’s Environmental Impact Statement was poorly conducted, according to the tribe. If rewritten, it could affect the final remedial action. The car company, and especially the EPA, has a vested interest in cleaning the Ringwood site as thoroughly as possible. Capping should not be an option. The streams that run from Ringwood eventually flow in the Wanaque Reservoir, which supplies water to over two million people in New Jersey.

If Ford is not careful, its toxic legacy will continue for decades to come.

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