By Michael Hill
Ramapough Indian Vivian Milligan is compiling the obituaries.
“We’ve lost a lot of people. It took quite a while to realize something was not right,” she said.
She’s keeping track of the tribe members in Ringwood who’ve died of cancer and other illnesses.
For years, the now-closed Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Mahwah dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of paint sludge in two, deep Ringwood mines and contaminated the soil and water.
When asked if there is any doubt the contamination led to the deaths, Milligan said, “No.”
Ford was ordered and did some cleanup in the ’90s and the EPA decided Ford had done enough and the risk had been contained.
But, a few years later, in 2005, testing showed that assessment was wrong and the area went back on the Superfund list. Residents say the government betrayed them then and still is by not informing them of test results, giving erroneous results and as late as this week, being told the government’s method of testing for the potential cancer-causing chemical — 1,4-Dioxane — was obsolete.
Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker wrote to the EPA urging it to do a much better job of keeping citizens in Ringwood informed and in a timely way.
The EPA replied, “We will do that.” The EPA said it agrees that “… full transparency and proactive, timely updates … [are] critically important to … restoring public confidence…”
“I think we can trust the process, but we’ve got to make sure we are influencing the process to what’s best for the citizens of Ringwood,” Booker said.
Over the years, the EPA has met stakeholders in a series of community meetings.
“We’v heard from people that they’re concerned about presence of 1,4-Dioxane here at the site presents an imminent threat to them,” said EPA Branch Chief Doug Garbarini. “We do not think that is the case.”
The EPA proposes to have Ford do more cleanup and cap the mines with tons of paint sludge still hundreds of yards below ground.
“We’re developing a cleanup plan there that we believe is protective of public health and the environment. It doesn’t excavate the mines as some people have advocated because we don’t think that that is feasible,” said EPA Regional Director Judith Enck.
Ramapough Indian Chief Vincent Mann says the EPA plan leaves the risk of more pollution down stream of contaminating the drinking water to hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans far removed from Ringwood.
“There is enough paint sludge that’s dispersed around here that if something does go wrong — earthquakes or failed caps or things like that, if it goes wrong, there’s going to be an unbelievable issue, unbelievable,” Mann said.
This week, the EPA said it was forging ahead with the plan to cap the mine and residents say that ignores their voices.