Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Environmental Justice Issues at Ringwood Mines Superfund Site

By Colin English, Tiffany Liang, and Rudolph Reda

 Superfund site near Ringwood homes  (photo: Jan Barry)


In the 1970’s, Ford Motor Company dumped toxic paint sludge from its plant in Mahwah, New Jersey in various locations. One of these locations was an old iron mining community in Ringwood, New Jersey, which is home to the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation. Since 1984, when the site was first put onto the National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup, the area has undergone a series of remedial activities. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of paint sludge have been removed from the site, but the Ford plant  produced tens of millions. In 1994, the Ringwood site was delisted, but it was relisted in 2006.

In May 2014, Chief Vincent Mann of the Turtle Clan commissioned RISE (Research and Investigation for Society and the Environment), the Environmental Assessment class at Ramapo College, to write an Environmental Justice-oriented Environmental Impact Statement concerning the Ringwood site. The Firm, as it is referred to colloquially, is divided into three teams: ecological, physical, and social. Each team has its own team manager and editors, which are headed by two project managers and a head editor. Below is the summary of the Firm’s findings.


The RISE Ecological team set out to assess the current environmental status of the Ringwood Mines Superfund site. This team focused on the flora, fauna, all hazards and vulnerabilities, health and safety, and surface water impacts in the area. Since the Ramapough tribe has a lifestyle unlike the majority of the surrounding suburban community’s, it was deemed that these ecological impacts would play a key role in affecting their overall wellbeing.

The Ramapoughs of Ringwood lead a subsistence lifestyle; they rely on hunting and fishing of wild game for consumption and have a deep connection to the land they live on. As the game in the area—including rabbits, squirrels, deer—drinks from the streams or comes into contact with contamination in eating vegetation, these animals can become contaminated themselves. During RISE site visits, chickens and roosters were observed to be roaming free through the residents’ backyards, potentially coming into contact with contamination. This contamination of fauna means there is the potential for bioaccumulation, or the travel of toxins up the food chain, to occur. Since the risk of bioaccumulation is high, the Ramapoughs have been forced to change their cultural ways.

As part of their subsistence lifestyle, the Ramapoughs culture also frequently makes use of the plants in the area. These plants provide not only a food source, but a medicinal source as well. Much like with the fauna, the potential for bioaccumulation to occur among flora is a risk the Ramapoughs are not prepared to take. Testing conducted by the EPA has shown that there are elevated levels of lead in the flora throughout the site. In one test, a wild carrot had so many abnormalities, it was deemed a fluke and discarded without further analysis. This contamination of their food and medicine source has forced the Ramapoughs to change their cultural practices, and in turn they have lost a significant amount of their tribal knowledge.

Throughout the ground underneath the Ringwood Superfund site are abandoned mine tunnels, a human-caused hazard. These abandoned tunnels have been an issue of major concern, long before dumping occurred. With no maintenance, subsidence and sinkholes have been able to form. In one well known case, a child fell to his death as the edge of Cannon Mine pit gave way, in 1963. Since the area became a Superfund site, there have been little actions taken by Ford and the EPA to inform the public of such dangers. State-maintained trails lead hikers in Ringwood State Park directly into the Peters Mine site, with no signage about mine dangers. There is a fence that separates the trail from Upper Ringwood, and a "no trespassing" sign is placed on the side of the fence facing the Ramapough community.

Despite what has occurred, the potential for Mother Nature to intensify things is a real possibility, thereby producing natural-caused hazards. Various weather events can cause erosion, which has the potential to uncover or cover areas of paint sludge. Excess rain could cause flooding, which may increase the spread of contamination throughout the Ringwood area and beyond. Deep underground, the Ramapo fault lies active, occasionally shaking the earth with small but measurable earthquakes. With so many mine shafts littering the area, one decent sized quake (or enough small ones) could cause severe instability in the area; potentially leading to mineshaft collapses.

The Ramapough community once had a high quality of life; members of the community have lived as old as 105 years. Since the contamination has occurred, they have been plagued with a variety of health issues. Over the years, they have come into contact with the contamination from ingestion of flora, fauna and surface water while also coming into direct contact with paint sludge and tainted soil. According to the ATSDR, the health conditions the Ramapough have been facing (cancer, respiratory, reproductive and developmental, neurological disorders, heart disease, skin rashes, eye irritation, anemia, diabetes, and shorter lifespan) are all consistent with the toxicological side effects of exposure from on-site contaminants.

Due to the human-caused hazards mentioned, there are major safety concerns related to the abandoned mine tunnels throughout the area. Additionally, there is the ever-present issue of fire safety. Because much of the area was once used as Ford and municipal landfills, methane release is a concern. The presence of this flammable gas means that in the event of a fire, not only could it ignite brush near homes, it could cause explosions. Lastly, in the event of an emergency, there is only one primary road in and out of Van Dunk Lane. If a fire or sinkhole were to occur along the road, emergency vehicles would be unable to reach the cul de sac end of the road.

Tainted stream  (photo: Rudy Reda)
All across the site, multiple streams and wetlands can be observed. Springs, which once flowed clean and provided drinking water, now flow orange and contain various toxins. Due to fear of contamination, the Ramapough have been forced to fish elsewhere, such as in the nearby Wanaque Reservoir, where they are arrested for doing so.

Until the groundwater in the area is addressed, the wetlands and streams which flow into the Wanaque reservoir may continue to be tainted. Although the contamination is not known to be migrating offsite, anything that does make its way offsite could pose a potential threat to the water supply of 2.5 million people. Currently, much of the testing that does occur at the reservoir is not testing for toxins specific to the site.

Overall, the Ecological team at RISE determined that there is a clear and present injustice that is occurring to the local community. Each individual member concluded that with regards to their indicator, the Ramapoughs face a disproportionally high amount of ecological concerns. While the team also assessed the current proposed remedial actions, they were split as to whether or not the EPA’s plan of capping would suffice. The team, however, agreed that while a full remediation of the site would be the ideal option, an alternative, yet un-proposed relocation option would be a viable option to consider as well. Further investigation would be required to see if this latter option is feasible.


Secondly, a team of seven students collaborated to uncover all of the potential impacts to the Physical systems of the Ramapough community. The Physical Team of RISE was structured similarly to the other two teams, with a team manager to coordinate their research efforts, an editor to transform the data and their individual pieces into a single and coherent form, and each student had an indicator of impact assessment to dig into. The six Physical impacts indicators were: Air and Climate, Energy, Hydrology and Groundwater, Noxious Conditions, and Traffic.

Through trips to Ringwood, various meetings with specialists and community members, as well as a thorough examination of the existing data and accumulated research, RISE’s Physical Team uncovered a compelling narrative of real and present dangers to the Turtle Clan. The Ramapoughs live on top of hollowed mountains due to an old iron mining industry and the unwanted toxic wastes of a major industrial operation.

The findings of many of the Physical team members point to decades of neglect, societal oppression, and environmental injustices to the Ramapough community. Before the dangerous intersection of mining and contamination that reduced their ability to utilize the land and practice their culture occurred, the Ramapoughs freely drank from trout-producing streams, enjoyed a proud sense of societal self-sufficiency, and knew that their children were under the constant, safe vigil of the community. The Turtle Clan currently suffers a disproportionately high degree of risk from mining, natural hazards, and environmental contamination in comparison to the surrounding communities.

Unlike much of the region, the situation of the Turtle Clan remains dire. The other residents of Ringwood are not affected by volatile organic compounds in the groundwater that, due to their chemical properties, quickly off-gas into the Ramapoughs' air before significant migration occurs downstream. The students of Ramapo College of New Jersey will not wake up each morning to the sporadic hums of backhoes nor the steady stream of trucks as toxic materials are dug up around them. The surrounding communities will not be forced to forgo much of their low-energy culture to survive in a high-energy dominant culture.

Each physical indicator of impact clearly showed that environmental injustice is occurring to the Ramapough Turtle Clan and that standard models of analysis used by the EPA and other regulatory agencies do not encompass a scope wide enough to capture that conclusion.   As a result of future remediation efforts, local traffic issues will increase, the Ramapoughs will bear a disproportionate brunt of cumulative energy impacts, and they will continue to live in perpetual jeopardy of land subsidence, toxic gas inhalation, and groundwater toxicity in ways that other communities will not.


The Social Team of RISE assessed all possible social impacts Ford’s contamination had on the Ringwood site, as well as the impacts of previous environmental disturbances. The indicators for this group were: Cultural, Environmental Justice, Public Policy, Psycho-Social, Organizational, Socio-Economic, and Visual.

The Cultural indicator determined that Ford’s contamination caused a loss of indigenous knowledge among the Ramapoughs because they were forced to stop hunting and gathering normally. The Borough’s proposed placement of Ringwood’s recycling center over the O’Connor Landfill, rather than remove all contamination, would further restrict access to cultural lands as well as bring in streams of traffic and visitors along a once-isolated road where many Ramapough families live. Relocation of the Clan would allow them to continue cultural practices, as well as relearn them, unhindered.

The Environmental Justice indicator came to the conclusion that not only have the Ramapoughs been treated unfairly due to their race, the treatment they received from Ford/ARCADIS and the EPA left something to be desired. Though the EPA has attempted to reach out to the community through its Community Advisory Groups, the Borough of Ringwood and society at large have not been as accommodating to the Clan’s needs and concerns.

An example of the unfair treatment and racial discrimination the Ramapoughs face occurred on April 1, 2006 when Emil Mann was shot by a state park ranger, Chad Walder. Mann and a group of friends were riding ATVs on Stag Hill, which is the center of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, in neighboring Mahwah, when they were accosted by a park ranger. Soon, two more rangers joined. Reportedly, Mann tried to break up the altercation before he was shot twice. He died of his wounds nine days later. The police reported that there were “mountain people” in the area, and many of the comments posted online after the story went live revivied vicious, generations-old stereotypes of the Ramapoughs.

Additionally, the Organizational indicator discovered that the way organizations acted towards the Clan before, during, and after Ford’s contamination was both irresponsible and discriminatory. Previous mining, Borough-sanctioned landfills, Ford’s contamination, and the recently trenched Tennessee pipeline were all environmentally disrupting occurrences that were imposed upon the Ramapoughs with little to no tools for them to fight back.

The Policy and Regulation indicator noted that even though Ford’s dumping took place before any environmental legislation had been made in the United States, it did not excuse the company’s continued behavior after environmental protection laws were enacted in the 1970s and 1980s. The Turtle Clan’s lack of federal recognition gives them very little power to influence the Superfund process. However, this does not mean they have been helpless to fight back, through speaking out at public meetings and to the news media.

The Psycho-Social indicator showed that though the Ramapoughs are a tight-knit community, coping with the sheer scale of change Ford’s contamination wrought on their environment as well as collective psyche has taken its toll. Not only is the community rife with health problems, it has also experienced wave upon wave of deaths since contamination occurred.

The Socio-Economic indicator revealed that the Ramapoughs are proud of being a subsistence culture, therefore they were ill-equipped to deal fiscally with the effects of Ford’s contamination. Due to the added racial stigma, it is also hard for the Clan to get well-paying jobs and to continue their education.

The Visual indicator added that because the contamination happened on the Ramapough’s land, they live with a constant visual reminder of the contamination. This in turn makes it hard for them to move on and rebuild their sense of community. Landscape that was once familiar to the Clan has been destroyed or damaged by Ford as well as previous mining activities. RISE saw firsthand how disrupted the landscape at Ringwood was through a series of field trips.


In 2013, the EPA submitted its final Environmental Justice report concerning the Ringwood site. However, it was deemed insufficient in scope by third parties. In a normal Superfund investigation, a RI/FS (Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study) report is produced. However, at the request of Chief Mann, RISE produced an FEIS, instead. The Ringwood Superfund site is the first to ever be delisted than relisted to the NPL.

In summary, the EPA did not consider the cultural degradation to the Ramapough community that resulted from Ford’s contamination while formulating its Proposed Plan for remediation. When the Borough of Ringwood, a responsible party due to municipal landfills, proposed a different remedial alternative to their benefit, the narrow interpretation of environmental justice did not allow for careful deliberation of the impact it would have on the Turtle Clan and its land. As of this writing, the EPA has yet to issue a Record of Decision concerning the Ringwood site. Its Proposed Plan, however, fails to address EJ issues. If it is implemented, the Ramapoughs will be left living in virtually the same situation, which perpetuates the problems that Ford began 50 years ago.

RISE (2014). Superfund remediation in Ringwood, New Jersey: A final environmental justice environmental impact assessment. Mahwah, New Jersey: Environmental Assessment Course.

Colin English is a graduating senior of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a B.A. in Environmental Studies, and a double minor in Psychology and Public Policy. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a synthesis of community education and social ecology, with a specialization in marginalized and impoverished groups.

Tiffany Liang will soon be a graduate of Ramapo College with a bachelor’s in Environmental Studies. She has enjoyed writing her entire life and is eager to find a job. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, playing the piano, and eating.

Rudy Reda is a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He will be graduating with a BA in Environmental Studies.  With an interest in sustainability, Rudy will be searching for a career in the related field upon graduation.  When he is not focusing on his professional life, Rudy is an avid music fan and enjoys traveling around the world to music festivals, while also improving his own musical talents.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. Thanks for posting. When phase 1 reports are not so satisfactory, Environmental site assessment phase 2 is done. This is very useful to assess any specific information.