Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Toxic Legacy: Race-Based Dumping

By Vanna Garcia

Ten minutes from Ramapo College, a small state college in New Jersey, a former Ford plant that closed in 1980 still shakes a community in Ringwood, NJ.

Just three years after the Ford plant in Mahwah closed its doors, the Environmental Protection Agency put the company’s dumpsite in neighboring Ringwood on its Superfund list of the most contaminated sites in the country. Two decades later, community protests and reports in local newspapers forced the EPA to put the site back on the Superfund list, despite declaring in 1994 that it had been “appropriately cleaned.”

Among this large dumping site you will find two abandoned iron mines and a landfill surrounding the homes of a Ramapough Indian community.

Contamination from the paint sludge has made these residents sick – sometimes terminally – and, still, most of them stay there, pressing for a full clean up of land these residents have called home for centuries.

“Approximately 3,500 tribal members who live in the area have higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems from decades of contaminated water and soil,” Ramapough Chief Dwaine Perry told The Record, describing the impact of dumping toxic waste from the Ford plant in the region, which includes portions of Mahwah, Ringwood and nearby sites in the Town of Ramapo, NY.

For many, the image of an impoverished child, a child living in miserable circumstances and lacking access to basic needs and social services in the United States, is unfathomable. But for these community members, poverty and illness is right in their backyard.

Forty-year-old dried paint sludge, rusted 55-gallon drums of industrial debris, were still visible in parts of woods and the smell of acetone was intoxicating, The Record reported in a 2005 investigative series called “Toxic Legacy.”

Throughout the course of history, it is clear that people of color face greater barriers than their White European counterparts due to the cultural climate that seems to deem black and brown bodies as less valuable and more disposable than other race-based identity groups – and this idea is proven yet again by the lack of government involvement and health industries for such a long time that has since plagued the Ramapough Indians.

The face of poverty does not always have a rural backdrop or only exist in other parts of the world — statistically, according to Poverties.org, as nearly half of African and Asian populations are becoming urbanites, and more than three-fourths of Latin America already is.

Poverty exists everywhere, and the Ramapough Indians have a long history of dealing with injustice and government-imposed oppression by negligence.

It is easy to see the racial inequality that is embedded in the culture of our society, which disproportionately separates the low socioeconomic people of color from the general society of middle-class white individuals in the surrounding communities, but what happens when the crime is right under your nose, and when the culprit is your own government?

The United States government has failed to serve the Ramapough Indian community, instead ignoring their concerns over the years and leading them down a path of hopelessness and, often, death due to illness. 

Poverty is not just about the capacity to afford a basic food basket; it is a matter of lack of basic civil and political rights. The Ramapough Indians’ civil rights are being infringed upon since their health, physical, mental and emotional falls victim to the poor living conditions of the areas in which they live.

The Ramapo Record, in recent years, has investigated and documented the chronic poverty and level of toxicity that surrounds children, women and men in this community for over forty years. Research and extensive visits to the site have found that the harmful effects of the Ford Company have contributed to environmental issues such as water contamination, hazardous debris in the air, cancer and other unexplained illness, which has disproportionately affected this community.

This community has faced chronic poverty and marginalization by systems that are supposed to protect them from these types of living conditions and circumstances.

Top priorities in African-American, Latino and Asian communities rarely include environmental issues like water contamination, pollution and landfills, despite the fact that such environmental ills plague and contribute to the quality of life in these often-poor communities – and as long as these communities remain quiet and blind about these issues, nothing will get better.

These environmental issues are not given enough attention, which will not effect change and environmental justice until the affected communities band together to address the culprit of these mass poisonings of innocent people: Unregulated multi-billion dollar industries, like Ford. 

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