Monday, March 28, 2016

EPA Meeting in Ringwood: A Lesson in American History

By Melanie Schuck

I was asked to go to the town hall meeting in Ringwood, New Jersey by Dr. Stead for my Global Ethics class. By the time the meeting began, the room was so packed full of people that our entire class had to stand on the outskirts of the room in order to allow for everyone to come into the space. Even then it was not enough room so Dr. Stead designated three students, including myself, to stay and observe the meeting while the rest of the class went to a back room in the borough hall for the rest of the meeting.  

The meeting started off calm enough but as the Environmental Protection Agency officials gave their presentation regarding the status of the paint sludge that had been dumped there by Ford Motor Company when the plant in Mahwah was still functioning, it became quite clear that there was a disconnect between the EPA and the residents of Ringwood. Every once in a while a resident would interrupt to ask a question or to ask for clarification on something the EPA presenter had said. This led to constant interruption and questions, but to me it seemed to be well deserved due to the disconnect that was present.
There was one particular part of the meeting that stuck with me, that I do not even have to refer to my notes to remember. After numerous questions on the part of the residents, one of the members of the Citizens Advisory Group who was obviously frustrated said something akin to “we’ll never get through this presentation unless we do this as civilized people.” I physically recoiled at this as the residents began to protest against the use of the word “civilized.” The CAG member tried to backpedal as she said “I didn’t mean that you’re not civilized.” But, it was too late. She had said it and the residents had most definitely heard her say it. One resident who was standing near me was muttering under his breath about the word civilized.  

The first thing that popped into my head was the racist implications of implying that the residents of the affected Ringwood neighborhood were not civilized. That implication stretches all the way back to the days of the settlement of the Americas since the vast majority of the residents of the iron mining area of Ringwood are part of the Ramapough Lenape Turtle Clan. Clearly, there are some serious racist implications of implying that the Native Americans that live in Ringwood are uncivilized, because in the days when settlers were landing in the New World, they believed the Natives living there to be ‘savages’ and ‘uncivilized.’ Dr. Stead had warned us that we would witness environmental racism first-hand, but I did not know what to expect. I definitely did not count on being so uncomfortable witnessing what took place in that meeting.
It took at least an hour and a half to two hours to get through the entirety of the presentation that the EPA was giving the residents about the latest hazardous chemical found in groundwater and streams in the area. The meeting began at seven in the evening and lasted well over three hours. I left at ten o’clock because it had stretched past my class time and the inefficiency of the meeting was taking its toll on me. Despite the fact that I felt that the meeting was completely inefficient and that there were constant interruptions on the part of the Ringwood residents, I have to side with them over the EPA. They have every right to be angry with the EPA. The EPA was spitting out numbers at them rather them giving them an actual solution to help them. As Chief Perry pointed out, he asks the same question at every meeting regarding the health and welfare of his people and what the EPA plans on doing to help them. He received no answer.

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