Peter’s Mine Road is plastered with signs. On one side, they say “congratulations class of 2022.” On the other, they say “Superfund site.”
Pollution in this area of Ringwood, New Jersey dates back to 1967, when the Ford Motor Company began dumping paint sludge and other hazardous byproducts from their Mahwah car factory on land surrounding a defunct mine. But for a while nobody knew – especially not the indigenous people who lived there. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn’t designate the site for federally-managed Superfund cleanup until the 1980s.
Those toxic chemicals remain at the center of a decades-long fight, waged largely with the Ramapough Lenape Nation’s Turtle Clan.
Two weeks ago, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the state Attorney General’s office filed a new lawsuit against Ford, saying the automaker was “fully aware” of the harm it was causing to Ringwood and the ancestral lands of the Ramapough.
Most of the area’s residents were and continue to be members of the Turtle Clan. Chief Vincent Mann said the community’s way of living off the land unknowingly sealed their fate.
“They were harvesting wild medicinals. They were drinking the water,” Mann said. “In all of those things was all the toxic chemicals that was disposed of there by Ford Motor Corporation, allowed by the town of Ringwood.”
According to the new civil complaint, Ford later sold or donated the land to municipal governments and residential developers without fully disclosing the contamination they’d left behind. By 1973, the company no longer owned any land at the site.
DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourrette said the lawsuit seeks restitution for the damage done to natural resources, rather than human health. Over 600 people from Upper Ringwood, alleging personal injuries and cancer due to the dumping site, filed a class-action lawsuit in 2006 that ended with an unspecified settlement with Ford and two other companies three years later.
“This lawsuit is not about harm to the people,” LaTourrette said. “It’s about harm to the people’s environment.”
Neither he nor Mann knows the full value of the contaminated natural resources.
“The state of New Jersey says that they will sue for whatever is legally allowable,” Mann said. “I don't know that there's a limit.”
Dr. Judith Zelikoff, a professor of toxicology at New York University, said a few years after Ford no longer possessed the land, the Turtle Clan began to notice something was wrong.
“Their squirrels, their raccoons, the deer – they had tumors,” she said. “They had cancer, and they knew something was wrong.”
High concentrations of things like nickel and lead and arsenic.
Zelikoff has been studying and testing the area for cancer-causing toxins since 2013.
“What we found was that in much of the soil there was high concentrations of things like nickel and lead and arsenic,” Zelikoff said. All of those compounds are considered known carcinogens by the World Health Organization.
She said there hasn’t been enough research to establish causation, which can take decades. A 2015 analysis by the New Jersey Department of Health reported elevated rates of lung and cervical cancer among the Turtle Clan, after the officials looked at data from 1979 to 2011. But the team couldn’t rule out other causes, such as cigarette smoke or human papilloma virus (HPV). The report also found a trend in birth defects, but it wasn’t statistically significant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached a similar conclusion in 2011 about lung cancer among the clan.
But Zelikoff said what she’s seen in Ringwood isn’t normal: “Thirty-year-olds dying, left and right. Twenty-year-olds dying, left and right. From cancer, mostly.”
A woman who lives near the old mine told Gothamist she grew up playing on the site that the EPA has now fenced off. She asked not to be identified by name, citing a non-disclosure agreement she signed in connection to the 2009 settlement.
“As kids, we used to come down and get the big barrels of paint and carry it up to our house and paint our bedrooms,” she said. “We had beautiful blue, black, red, green paint. Everybody came up to get that. Why wouldn't you? It was free. It was sitting there. Did we know it was bad? No.”
In the 2009 settlement, the plaintiffs got an average of $8,000 dollars, according to the resident, who said there was no transparency over how the damages were distributed. She and her husband — a member of the Ramapough — only got $700 each.
The EPA didn’t list Ringwood Mine as a Superfund site until 1983. The designation marks the land for federally managed cleanup, typically at the expense of the parties responsible. It was delisted 10 years later, after Ford conducted an initial cleanup effort that removed 8,300 cubic yards of sludge and soil.
But new pockets of toxins were discovered by residents in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The site was relisted in 2006, when the EPA realized Ford had underreported this contamination. It’s the only Superfund site in the U.S. to be listed twice.
Chief Mann described restoration as minimal, calling it a death sentence for the Turtle Clan.
“They went and picked the stuff that people could see by standing on a road, and they left,” he said.
Commissioner LaTourrette said he regrets the way the government handled the situation. Ford agreed to pay New Jersey another $2.1 million in a 2019 settlement to cover the cleanup costs.
“All I can say about the past experience of this indigenous community is I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry [that] for too long folks have not stood tall enough for this community.”
Mann and Zelikoff said that while the Ringwood disaster has largely fallen on the Ramapough, the situation may soon be felt by others.
“We’re really worried now with climate change and all those severe conditions, it could get into groundwater,” Zelikoff said, noting that the Superfund site is only a few miles from Wanaque Reservoir. Many New Jersey residents get their drinking water from Wanaque.
A spokesperson for Ford said the company takes its environmental responsibility seriously and has demonstrated that by implementing a remediation plan as stipulated by the EPA.
The Ramapough and other residents of Upper Ringwood have nevertheless had to change the way they live. Chief Mann noticed his community was struggling to adapt.
“Our people were still growing in small gardens in there,” he said. “Bad idea.”
To begin restoring the Clan’s food sovereignty, he started Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm on 9 acres in Sussex County. Just to be safe, it’s a 1-hour drive from Ringwood.
“Nobody was doing anything to try to address the changes within our DNA and our body that took place because of the effects of the Superfund site and the toxic mess by Ford,” he said. “So we created this farm so that we could provide clean, healthy food to our community.”
The fields are green with fruit, vegetable and hemp plants. Chief Mann hopes to set up an aquaponics system in one of the greenhouses.
He and his wife run the farm with the help of their sons and volunteers, many students from Rutgers University. What he can’t finance in grants, he pays out of pocket. The produce they grow is distributed to the Turtle Clan free of charge. Mann said he’s cautiously optimistic about the new lawsuit.
“We're the last ones to get the help. We're the last ones to have a voice,” he said, of indigenous people in the United States. But he said things are beginning to change, albeit slowly.
“People are being more receptive, taking on their responsibilities — like the state of New Jersey.”
He hopes some of the damages from the new lawsuit will be given to the farm, to continue their work on cultural restoration.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now’s ‘Food & Water’ joint coverage week.