Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Government Foot-Dragging: Toxic Legacy Update

Paint sludge in Ringwood stream   (photo/Jan Barry)

More than 25 years after a US Environmental Protection Agency official stated that all hazardous contaminants that could be found had been removed from a Ford Motor Company dump site in Ringwood, NJ, the federal agency is again delaying a decision on what to do about tens of thousands of tons of tainted soil that are still in the residential neighborhood next to a state park and New Jersey’s largest reservoir.

In a recent news release, the EPA announced it’s extending the public comment period for Ford’s latest cleanup plan for the Ringwood Mines Superfund site until Feb. 5. Nearly a year ago, top agency officials “reassured about two dozen Upper Ringwood residents … that the cleanup of the 500-acre Superfund site in their community is a priority,” The Record of North Jersey reported.

A quarter-century ago, in 1988, an EPA official assured residents at a public hearing that the waste site had been cleaned up by Ford contractors who excavated material at four locations near several homes. Some more material was removed a couple years later and the EPA closed the case, even though more toxic paint sludge was subsequently found in a residential backyard. But an outcry by residents and an investigation by The Record in 2005 found evidence of far-more extensive contamination, which the EPA had not required Ford to account for or remove.

As The Record noted in an October 2005 editorial, “the federal government, which declared Ringwood a Superfund site, has allowed Ford to get away with shoddy cleanups time and time again. … How could Ford get away with this for so long when the foul-smelling sludge was literally under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's nose? Both Ford and the feds must be held accountable. It is long past time for a federal criminal investigation into the sludge dumping and puny cleanup efforts.”

But, as The Record reported in December 2010, despite a request by NJ Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell for a criminal investigation, “No charges were ever filed by the U.S. attorney [Chris Christie, elected New Jersey’s governor in 2009]. The state Department of Environmental Protection never pressed a case against Ford for the pollution that reached Ringwood State Park.”

Pressed by a residents’ lawsuit, visits to the site by US Senator Frank Lautenberg and other federal elected officials, and six years of directives by EPA to undertake more testing and excavation, “Ford contractors removed more than 47,000 tons of paint sludge and tainted soil,” The Record noted in 2010.

At issue now is what to do about more than 200,000 tons of debris laced with lead, arsenic, benzene and other hazardous chemicals that was dumped into two iron mine shafts and a landfill near several homes and streams feeding the Wanaque Reservoir.

Ford is seeking EPA approval to leave most of the toxic waste in place and cover it with an earthen cap. That would approximate the conditions at the two mines and the landfill in 1988, when the EPA assured residents that there was nothing more to worry about.

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