Jan. 14, 2009 -- 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.
So why are locals reluctant to cooperate? They have a general distrust of the government. The explanation goes back to 1983, when Ringwood was deemed so contaminated it was put on the EPA's superfund list. Ford was directed to clean up the area.
In 1994, 11 years later, Ford told the EPA the cleanup was done. It reported that the water was clean and the EPA agreed. Ringwood was removed the superfund list, but not all residents were happy about that.
Bob Spiegel soon brought the story to the local paper. Reporter Jan Barry and a team from The Record of New Jersey worked for years piecing together the story of what had happened in Ringwood.
"So we did our own investigation and went and looked at the original field reports from the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] and the EPA from the early '80s as to why they created a superfund site," Barry said. "They indicated where they saw paint sludge. I went out with a camera and found paint sludge in the same places. It was still there."
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EPA Head: Ringwood Site 'a Tragedy'
In spite of what both Ford and the EPA had said, Ringwood was still contaminated. And when Alan Steinberg arrived at the EPA in the fall of 2005, he quickly moved to put Ringwood back on the superfund list, the first and only time a superfund site had been relisted.
"I went to the site myself and what I saw was a tragedy," said Steiberg. "I can't speak exactly for what happened then, but I know that the judgment was not that of the EPA alone. It was also the judgment of other agencies involved. The federal government, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry and also the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. It was an honest misjudgment."
But it was a misjudgment that meant the citizens of Ringwood continued to live on a toxic waste site for years longer than they should have. And many in upper Ringwood said they are sick as a result of their exposure to the toxins.
"I have not talked to every single one of them, but I wouldn't doubt it," said Steinberg. "But that's why we engaged various agencies in the federal and state government to deal with the health issues."
"I can't make the exact judgment," Steinberg continued. "It's up to the health agencies. But is there a potential that this contamination has resulted in sickness? Absolutely. ? I would still be very angry if I were a citizen of upper Ringwood."
And many of them are angry and sick. "We live on a 500-acre hazardous waste land fill," said Wayne Mann. "We don't live on the outskirts of it. We live on it."
And the toxins, they say, have devastated their community.
"Mentally, physically, bodily and culturally, it has destroyed it. All four ways it has destroyed it," said Mann. "How do you justify poisoning men, women and children? You cannot justify. And Ford fully knew what it was doing."
'I Feel Betrayed'
Since the site was put back on the superfund list in 2006, Ford has again been cleaning up the sludge in Ringwood.
"This site was done and excavated and restored to its natural state," said Holt, while walking through the site.
He said the recent effort met "the requirements of the state of New Jersey and the EPA. You'll see little virile ponds, and in a couple of weeks, you'll see little tadpoles. ? This is all clean."
And there is evidence that it's working. "Nightline" tested the water on several occasions, sending it to an independent lab. The results showed that the water was safe.
But it's all too late, said Wayne Mann.
"No one protected us," he said. "The government failed us as Ford poisoned us. We're not going to let that happen to our children. I'm not letting it happen to my grandchildren. ? I feel betrayed. I feel betrayed."
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Ford Motor Company's Ringwood Site Update