Toxic Trails

July 15th, 2011

By Jan Barry

Mann v. Ford, HBOResidents of a once-isolated mountain community in Ringwood, NJ have a bone-chilling tale to tell the rest of America. And HBO is offering its cable television services to help convey this story via a new documentary called Mann v. Ford.

Highlighting the community’s fight against a plague of illness and deaths they worry were caused by toxic waste dumped in the forest and abandoned iron mines around their homes, the film “follows members of New Jersey’s Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe in their five-year search for justice through a mass action lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company,” HBO stated in a promotion for the recent New York premiere at the Time Warner Center Theater. The film airs on the cable channel on Monday at 9 p.m.

During a discussion with the audience after the New York showing, Ringwood resident Roger DeGroat politely but firmly countered disparaging remarks about his Native American community that were cited in the film, such as in Ford internal documents about backwoods residents who lived adjacent to the company’s hazardous waste dumps in mine shafts and woodlands where local families hunted for deer and other wildlife: “I wonder what nationality has to do with dumping paint on people,” said DeGroat, stirring an outpouring of applause. “I’d like to live to see the day they clean it up, all of it.”

Filmmakers Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink display an array of stunning scenery and harrowing scenes to bring viewers inside a close knit hamlet on a forested mountain ridge above the shimmering Wanaque Reservoir, New Jersey’s largest water supply source, and next to bucolic Ringwood State Park, where cancer, diabetes or other severe illnesses have stalked nearly every home. The residents’ ordeal started, they recall, when Ford bought the mining works around their homes where generations of family members were miners. From 1967 into the early 1970s, Ford contractors dumped thousands of tons of lead-based paint sludge mixed with benzene and other chemicals, as well as car parts from Ford’s massive assembly plant in neighboring Mahwah.

Others who think industrial waste doesn’t affect them should reconsider, film producer James Redford told an audience at a preview showing this week at Ramapo College, a mile downstream from the former Ford manufacturing plant in Mahwah. “To assume you are living in a safe environment may be a dangerous assumption,” he said. That’s a major message of this film, said Redford, son of movie star Robert Redford.

“I know what it means to not feel well,” said Redford, noting that he has had two liver transplants. “But I wasn’t lying in bed knowing I was there because of negligence from other people. To me,” he said of his interest in making this film, “the core issue is health, that people’s health could be compromised.”

As the film dramatically shows, the Ringwood residents’ health complaints, however, never made it before a jury. A state court judge raised seemingly insurmountable barriers to presenting the health problems of more than 600 people and the potential side effects of hazardous waste they were exposed to. And just then, the national economy tanked and Ford’s future as a viable vehicle maker looked increasingly shaky. The residents’ gold-star list of lawyers headed by The Cochran Firm urged accepting a $11 million settlement offer before Ford went bankrupt. The municipality of Ringwood reportedly paid an additional $1.5 million for its role in turning part of Ford’s dumping grounds into a municipal landfill operation.

What makes this story more than another American tragedy to be mined for how clueless to our own welfare we often can be is that the Upper Ringwood Neighborhood Action Association led by Wayne Mann, Vivian Milligan, Jay Van Dunk and others refused to accept defeat and successfully pressed the US Environmental Protection Agency to overturn a previous decision to accept Ford’s assertion that the worst of the toxic waste had been removed. This led to Ford removing several times the amount of tainted soil and paint waste as it dug up initially, including waste with elevated levels of lead that were buried in residents’ yards and an unpaved driveway where children played.

“While Ford admits dumping in Upper Ringwood, their lawyers insist it was legal at the time. The EPA placed Ringwood on the Federal Superfund List in the 1980s. Under EPA supervision, the site was officially ‘cleaned-up’ by Ford and taken off the Federal Superfund List in the 1990s, but most of the toxic waste remained. In 2006, the residents of Upper Ringwood made history when their community became the first site in the country ever returned to the Superfund List. Today, the EPA admits it ‘missed’ nearly 80% of the toxins in the original cleanup,” the HBO website notes. The film notes that Ford representatives declined to be interviewed.

Behind the scenes, Ford and EPA are still sparring with the Upper Ringwood community over whether or not to remove untold tons of hazardous waste that was dumped and bulldozed into deep mine pits just yards away from residents’ homes and mountain streams that flow to the nearby Wanaque Reservoir, which provides drinking water to some two million New Jersey residents.

“I hope the film is an inspiration,” director Maro Chermayeff told the Ramapo College audience, which included many residents of the Upper Ringwood community and supporters from neighboring towns where tons of Ford paint waste was also dumped, and in some cases was later removed and in other places is still there next to water supply streams. ”You can speak out. You can be heard. You can get out and help other people. I think you guys did an amazing job of banding together.”

“This community made history,” added director Micah Fink.

The Ringwood residents’ health issues and the extent of industrial contamination in and around their community were initially documented in a 2005 series of newspaper articles, accompanied by an extensively researched website, titled “Toxic Legacy” published by The Record of Bergen County, NJ. I was a reporter with the investigative team that did that project. Adding a far more visual rendering of this story, this documentary adroitly weaves on-the-scene reporting and follow up commentary by fellow Record reporter Barbara Williams and myself.

Going beyond the newspaper accounts, the filmmakers present haunting snippets, for instance, from 8mm home movies made by Milligan’s father that showed local children playing amid Ford contractors’ dump site equipment and paint sludge slurry while community adults scavenged through the hazardous landfills for saleable auto parts.

In more recent scenes filmed for the documentary, community residents talk about how friends and relatives who lived amid the expanding landfills began to die of cancer and other diseases at younger ages. Health investigators hired by the lawyers are shown discussing with residents that many of their health problems are known to be potentially caused by exposure to hazardous industrial substances such as PCBs, lead, arsenic and dioxin, a highly toxic impurity that can be released into the environment by burning many common chemicals. As the film shows, Ford’s dump sites in two of the mines burned for weeks, spewing thick smoke through the community.

“I like the fact that people are getting to see some of the hardships that we went through,” Vivian Milligan told a Record reporter after the showing at Ramapo College. Wayne Mann, a Ringwood State Park worker who led the community through the lawsuit battle with Ford, said watching the film “hurt because it was my family.” In a telling scene in the film, he shows a filmmaker a wall in his hideaway office full of photos and mementos of family members and friends who died young.

A sobering note at the end of the film states:

“During the five years spent making this film, thirty members of the community died, without ever knowing the outcome of the case.

“A year after the case was settled, Ford posted profits of $2.7 billion.

“In 2010, Ford posted profits of $6.6 Billion, Its largest profit in 11 years.

“As of 2011, 74 million people in The United States live within four miles of a Superfund site.”

For more information:

Mann v. Ford,
“Toxic Legacy,” North
“Upper Ringwood residents’ environmental battle showcased in HBO documentary,”

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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