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Dump Debacle

May 19, 2006

(This essay appears in the current issue of the
Investigative Reporters & Editors’ magazine:
IRE Journal May/June 2006)

By Jan Barry
The (Hackensack, N.J.) Record

Finding industrial waste in a residential neighborhood is not unusual in New Jersey. After all, the state is known derisively as “Cancer Alley.” But it is novel to find tons of paint sludge in a neighborhood where a Superfund cleanup took place more than a decade ago.

That revelation was the starting point of “Toxic Legacy,” a five-part special report that set off shock waves in two states and at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The series laid out how, where and why paint waste laced with lead, arsenic and solvents linked to cancer showed up in lawns and parklands years after a Ford Motor Company dump site in Ringwood, N.J., was declared clean by the EPA and taken off the national Superfund list. It detailed how federal officials had accepted Ford’s assurances that it fully investigated the 500-acre site and removed the worst of the waste.

Digging through mountains of dusty old documents and conducting innumerable extensive interviews, our team uncovered a far different tale.

We told a story of indiscriminate dumping in a poor community, near streams flowing to a major regional reservoir, and at more than a dozen other unauthorized sites in New Jersey and New York. We exposed the failure of government to adequately address the problem, even as officials said all was well.

After “Toxic Legacy” was published, the EPA vowed that the area would be fully cleaned up and, prodded by members of Congress, re-listed as a Superfund site. New Jersey’s governor vowed the state would take a firm hand. New York vowed to act on years of complaints about sludge dumps along a water supply river that flows into New Jersey.

I’ve heard such promises before.

A toxic tour

I first saw paint sludge in 1995 on an EPA tour to see a pile of grayish lumps that a Ringwood resident unearthed near his backyard garden. The EPA said it was an aberration – just a small clump overlooked in the 1987-90 cleanup, and Ford would remove it. With the EPA on the case, we moved on to do a profile of the neighborhood. Paint sludge was just part of my piece on the Ramapoughs, a community of dark-skinned people with Dutch names who claim Native American ancestry. I described a tribe living in mountainside homes overlooking a scenic state park, whose members complained of years of being dumped on. Residents talked of deaths and danger living amid abandoned iron mines, industrial waste dumps, municipal landfills, high-voltage electrical lines, and midnight dumping of tires and other debris.

Nine years later, I again found myself on a toxic
tour of Upper Ringwood. Residents showed EPA inspectors sludge in several places in the forest near their homes and in the front yard of the home where sludge was found in the backyard in 1995. That day in February 2004, EPA officials gave the same assurances as before – that some small amount of sludge got overlooked and Ford would take care of it. Ford representatives said they had done, and would continue doing, whatever the EPA wanted.

I was astounded. I reviewed my 1995 story and notes and realized I had not known enough then – and still didn’t – to ask more focused questions.

Working with my colleague Barbara Williams, we set out to pin down the facts. Williams interviewed residents and found many in the community of about 400 people had cancer and other serious illnesses, or said family members had died of cancer. I dug into old files on the original cleanup and then took a hike with a camera and recorded rusted drums and paint sludge in and beyond where the clean-up work was said to have been done. Some of the most useful files were early investigators’ reports, buried in state and EPA files, which we used to help locate paint waste that was not cleaned up.

Our reporting generated more questions – questions that persuaded senior editors to launch a project on the legacy of toxic waste generated at Ford’s long closed Mahwah, N.J., assembly plant.

Health reporters Mary Jo Layton and Lindy Washburn, environmental reporter Alex Nussbaum, crime reporter Tom Troncone and photographer Tom Franklin came aboard, under the direction of project editors Tim Nostrand (see page 11) and Debra Lynn Vial. Investigative specialist Clint Riley helped report how, a generation ago, New Jersey accepted a large tract of Ford’s dumpsite as a gift without investigating what was on the land. Internal Ford documents revealed that company officials conveyed the parcel as a way to avoid responsibility for the contamination they knew was there.

We interviewed residents and their doctors, former Ford plant workers, haulers who dumped the sludge in various places in two states, neighbors who witnessed illegal dumping and law-enforcement investigators who chased dumpers with mob connections. Ford and EPA representatives declined to talk about [what] was done or not done in the past, maintaining that they were focused on the present cleanup work. Through residents and environmental activists we found frustrated officials or former officials who provided further insight into what happened in the past.

We reviewed stacks of documents at various agencies, tramped through overgrown dumps to document barely visible chunks of sludge, and hired a state-approved lab to do field sampling and chemical analysis of paint sludge, soil and water in several locations.

Lessons learned

In the midst of our eight-month-long investigation, New Jersey’s environmental commissioner looked at what was being turned up in Ringwood and called for a criminal investigation. The state’s environmental justice task force ruled that the residents had been unjustly dumped on. The state health department announced that some cancer rates in the community were unusually high.

After publication, officials in New York state, citing The Record’s series, began legal actions against Ford for dumping paint waste just over the state border from its former plant. Ford agreed to remove waste buried in the floodplain. Our testing had strongly suggested the contamination was spreading.

Recently, in an update on progress in the new Ford cleanup, the EPA announced that more than 14,000 tons of sludge and tainted soil – more than was removed in all previous years – was dug up and removed in 2005 by Ford and that several other Ringwood dump locations had been found and would be excavated.

I learned some lessons in pursuit of this story. The primary lesson was one of persistence: The persistent presence of reporters asking for files and interviews, attending every meeting and tour, wandering off on their own to look more widely, questioning every aspect of a dumpsite and where the waste came from and where else did it go, documenting known health effects of the toxic substances and the health problems of people in the area. This persistence, I learned, can pressure agencies to do their jobs.

I was reminded of something we can let slip in the press of deadlines – how important it is to check out every official claim. Our reporting compared these claims with information provided by residents, their lawyers and investigators, environmentalists who showed sludge in places that were brought to EPA or state attention years ago yet never got removed. We reported on a nonprofit watchdog group’s independent testing that showed higher levels of toxic substances than EPA said Ford consultants found. That spurred Record editors to have our own testing done.

Government is promising to make sure that, this time, Ford’s mess in Ringwood will be cleaned up. “Toxic Legacy” has made us better prepared to report the progress of that promise.

The full “Toxic Legacy” report, including test results, key documents, maps, photos and video, is available at www.toxiclegacy.com.

Jan Barry is a staff writer for The Record. “Toxic
Legacy” won the New Jersey Press Association’s
2005 public service award and an IRE Medal.

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