Wednesday, April 30, 2014

World as Classroom: Documentaries Depict Environmental Battles

By Tiffany Liang

A comparison between Mann v. Ford and The Island President, two documentaries released in 2010 and 2011, respectively, reveals similarities between the two situations depicted. In the case of Mann v. Ford, the Ramapough Lenape Indians are seen suing Ford Motor Company for dumping toxic paint sludge on their land. In the case of The Island President, Mohamed Nasheed is fighting at the Copenhagen conference to save his country from the effects of climate change.

Mann v. Ford came out in 2010 and documented the court case of the same name which was filed in 2005 and settled in 2009. The Ramapoughs, with Wayne Mann as the main plaintiff, sued Ford Motors for damages. From 1967-1971, the company dumped toxic paint sludge from its plant in Mahwah, New Jersey into neighboring Ringwood and other locations. Ringwood was declared a Superfund site in 1984 and delisted in 1994. However, continued discovery of paint sludge in the area caused the site to be relisted in 2006. In the end, Mann et. al. settled their case out of court because Ford seemed to be on the verge of bankruptcy.

Mann v. Ford focused on the involvement of the Cochran Firm, which represented the plaintiffs. Even without the involvement of Ford, the Ramapoughs have had their share of environmental exploitation. The fact that mining had happened in the area decades prior to Ford’s involvement was simply convenient, since Ford decided to dump a portion of its waste into open mine shafts. In particular, a series of mine fires that occurred from 1973-1974 seemed to indicate that, in addition to the pollutants already present in Ringwood, dioxin from burning industrial debris had been deposited on the site.

This court case took place while the Ramapoughs were in the midst of fighting for further remediation. As of this writing, the EPA has not issued its final Record of Decision regarding further actions at the Ringwood site. While this case still has the potential to be properly addressed and appropriately resolved, the same cannot be said for the ex-president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. The Island President, which was released in 2011, documented his efforts to combat climate change.

The Maldives is a small island nation located off the west coast of India. It is one of several small island states imminently threatened by the reality of climate change. The islands sit at sea level, and several have been losing land rapidly due to rising sea levels. Local fisheries have been adversely impacted, and the 2004 tsunami wiped out 50% of the country’s GDP. Whole islands had to be abandoned.

During the Copenhagen conference, Nasheed reiterated his country’s goals to become carbon neutral by 2019—the first country to declare so. He made valiant attempts to put 350 ppm and 1.5°C in the drafted resolution. According to organizations like, 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the level deemed “safe” for the planet. Current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are hovering around 399 ppm. Ultimately, Nasheed’s efforts were unsuccessful. In addition, he resigned from his office in 2012 under pressure from supporters of the former dictator.

Both cases, in Ringwood and in the Maldives, show the extent to which third parties are often indifferent to the plight of smaller, afflicted parties. Ford dumped in Ringwood, where they knew a minority community lived. The company hired a contractor to remediate the area after being identified as a potentially responsible party under Superfund, but the work has dragged out since the 1980s. The Maldives, under former President Nasheed, pushed to protect the livelihoods of both their nation and the planet at the Copenhagen summit. Those efforts were largely ignored.

This raises the following question: how far is an environmental situation allowed to go downhill before the higher ups decided enough is enough?

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