Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ramapo College Students to Investigate Environmental Justice

By Colin English
The Environmental Studies program at Ramapo College hosts a senior-level class called “Environmental Assessment,” which serves as a cumulative, experiential capstone. Through it, students learn to cohesively formulate the structure, research and data and interdisciplinary thought to create a professional-quality Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS). Each year the senior class tackles a different local or regional issue by acting as an environmental consulting firm to a private client.

This year, I am a co-Project Manager of Research and Investigation for Society and the Environment, the student-firm created to aid the Ramapough-Lenape Nation Turtle Clan of Ringwood navigate the Environmental Protection Agency’s Ringwood Superfund Site remedial process. Our class will perform a nuanced EIS with a specific focus on Environmental Justice due to the decades of contamination, complications, contentions, and inadequacies surrounding the remediation of Ford’s dump site in Ringwood. Throughout the semester, we will investigate the adverse impacts of contamination by Ford and others to communities like the Ramapough-Lenape Nation Turtle Clan, as well as to important ecological and historical sites such as the Ramapo River.

In the 1960s and 70s, Ford Motor Company and other parties disposed of massive amounts of industrial waste at various sites including mining pits and wooded areas. The affected Ringwood area became the first Federal Superfund site to be re-listed in 2006 to the National Priorities List, twelve years after it was reported to have been remediated by Ford. A long history of ecological degradation and social detriment, as well as insufficient action from the EPA, responsible parties, and other organizations, have complicated the current remedial process. Approximately five decades after the dumping, a meaningful and adequate resolution has not been reached. Our class has been called upon to compile a document to replace poor existing documentation of Environmental Justice issues and to garner a more positive remediation for the Ringwood site.

The foundations for our student project include the documentary Mann v. Ford and the  Toxic Legacy multimedia compilation prepared by The Record. They both document the extensive sociological and health ramifications for the local populations, namely the Ramapough-Lenape Nation Turtle Clan of Ringwood, and the persistent damage to the ecological systems in the area. Local communities that integrate hunting, gardening and other natural-resource gathering into their culture are especially susceptible to contaminant hazards that persist in their local environment.

The dangers that they have lived around for decades include, but are not limited to, breathing volatile organics such as Benzene that off-gas outside their houses; ingesting flora and fauna that have accumulated high levels of the toxics; experiencing physical contact to exposed, persistent paint sludge; living in a ecologically, aesthetically, and culturally degraded area that has been significantly transformed by the toxic conditions; including that the local and regional communities can no longer safely drink, fish, or recreate in the water systems. Speaking with the Ramapoughs, studying the available data, and formulating what research has yet to be collected about Environmental Justice issues all provide a fuller sense of the devastation and continued potential for harm to residents and the environment.

In addition to the dumping in Ringwood, Ford also dumped paint sludge in areas along and near the Ramapo River upstream of its assembly plant in Mahwah. Many historically and culturally significant functions of the Ramapo River, such as recreational and subsistence fishing, and cultural recreation for the children, are no longer safe to do. There has been little sustained media coverage of river contamination that serves to update the communities and local citizens on these hazards. The majority of the contamination still remains where it was dumped, continuously polluting the communities and invaluable water systems.

Waters from the Ramapo River flow directly to reservoirs that over two million people rely on each day. Despite the lack of official and public attention paid to this continued struggle, our involvement has the possibility to provide coverage of these events for the public and concerned citizens, as well as to become part of the solution to a problem that has festered for decades. If we are successful, a cleaner, healthier Ramapo River and regional watershed are hopeful consequences.

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