Citizens of 'Sludge City' File Lawsuit Against Ford Over Toxic Waste

In the 1960s, when the Ford Motor Company created some of the world's most popular cars, it disposed of some of the toxic by-products in a wooded area of Ringwood, N.J., currently one of the most polluted areas in America.

Overrun with paint deposits, battery acid and chemicals, local residents call the area Sludge Hill.

The sludge, which is now rock hard, was once a colorful liquid goo. It was also a toxic brew of arsenic, benzene and lead, and it was runny, slippery and dangerous.

"I was one of those children who used to go up on Sludge Hill," recalled Wayne Mann, the neighborhood's spokesman. "[I would] take a car hood and ride down, your hand steering in the wet sludge. You paint your face. You lick it, whatever. I was one of the young kids."

"I used to love to jump on the hard stuff," Vivian Milligan, a community leader, said. "I really loved that, my God."

Now residents like Mann and Milligan believe that they and many others are sick because they grew up on a toxic waste dump. They and 650 others are now suing, and are seeking compensation from the Ford Motor Company for allegedly contaminating the soil and groundwater in Ringwood.

Robert Kennedy Jr. has joined with other lawyers to represent the group. Kennedy says he has "no doubt" the actions of Ford caused the illness of Ringwood residents.

"This could not happen in Bedford, N.Y., couldn't happen in Greenwich, Conn.," Kennedy said, referring to a couple of wealthy suburban towns. "This type of thing only happens in communities that don't have the resources or political clout to defend themselves from the big polluters."

To describe how difficult these types of cases are to try in court, Kennedy points to the challenge lawyers faced for years while trying to prove in court that cigarettes caused cancer. The tobacco companies, he said, had other explanations for the plaintiffs' illnesses.

"It could have come from the benzene in the environment. It could have been genetics. It could have been anything," he said.

Ringwood Residents File Lawsuit

Kennedy said Ford's current defense is similar. The company does not deny the dumping, though it points out that it was legal at the time. But Ford does deny that there is any correlation between that dumping and the Ringwood residents' health problems.

"From what I've seen, I'm not a health expert, but from what I've seen, they've found no higher incidence of cancer or anything else here besides lung cancer," said John Holt, a spokesman for Ford. "That could be based on smoking and other habits. We haven't found any medical connection of paint sludge causing any medical problems."

A walk down one Ringwood street, Van Dunk Street, in November, found someone in every single house except one who had died from cancer or had cancer according to Vivian Milligan, one of the residents now suing Ford.

When asked if this was a coincidence, Holt replied, "As I said, the state records show that not to be the case. The incidence of cancer here is not any higher here than in Ringwood or any other area."

But Alan Steinberg, the head of the regional Environmental Protection Agency, said there have been no comprehensive health studies undertaken in Ringwood to determine who is sick and why. He said this is in part because the people in Ringwood are reluctant to come forward.

"I understand the reluctance, and I don't blame them, but this is the only way anyone will get to the bottom of this," Steinberg said.

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