New Jersey Community Endures Decades of Ford's Toxic Legacy

A slab of bright blue lies beside a mountain stream above the Wanaque Reservoir. It's a sporty color, maybe the "Diamond Blue" that Ford sprayed on Galaxies in the late 1960s. It hardened like lava where it was dumped more than a generation ago.

A slab of bright blue lies beside a mountain stream above the Wanaque Reservoir. It's a sporty color, maybe the "Diamond Blue" that Ford sprayed on Galaxies in the late 1960s. It hardened like lava where it was dumped more than a generation ago.

When running high, the stream rinses over the slab and down the mountain, through marshes and past beaver dams, toward the reservoir.

It's everywhere, this paint.

Chunks of it jut from the driveway of a house in Ringwood where a child got lead poisoning. It is so toxic he and his mom have moved out.

Piles of it, weathered and gray and wrinkled like an elephant's skin, cling to a hillside. Nearby is the home of a boy who died of a rare tumor.


On the other side of the hill a spring-fed stream once ran clear and fresh. For generations, it quenched the thirst of the mountain's residents, the Ramapoughs. Now the water is bright orange and laced with cancer-causing benzene.

Just upstream from Mahwah, a ridge of waste paint longer than a football field slowly leaches arsenic, lead and other heavy metals into the Ramapo River.

It is in countless other places -- in landfills, on farms, along hiking trails in the woodlands that sweep across the northern edge of New Jersey and form the region's important watersheds.

The paint sludge is from the Ford Motor Co.'s factory in Mahwah, once the largest auto assembly plant in the nation. Before closing in 1980, the behemoth plant spat out 6 million vehicles and an ocean of contaminants -- including enough paint sludge to fill two of the three tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Millions of gallons of paint sludge was dumped in the remote section of Ringwood that is home to the Ramapoughs. Their children played in it. The streams washed over it. Early this summer, state officials announced some cancer rates there are unusually high. The Ramapoughs blame the sludge.

For the past eight months, The Record has been investigating Ford's toxic legacy. A team of journalists went house to house documenting health complaints among the Ramapoughs. They hiked through the mountains and found paint sludge that had been missed by four government-supervised cleanups in Ringwood. They found sludge near homes, in parks and in the watershed. Not far from the site of Ford's Mahwah plant, they discovered sludge that had been tossed off the side of the road, even dumped near wells for public water supplies.

Tests commissioned by the newspaper found lead, arsenic and xylenes in the sludge -- some at 100 times the levels the government considers safe. The tests indicate the contamination is spreading.

The Record found that Ford repeatedly dumped in poor communities and failed to clean up its mess. Documents reveal that Ford executives knew as early as 34 years ago that its waste had contaminated a stream that feeds the Wanaque Reservoir. They show that the company tried to evade responsibility by presenting tainted land as a "gift" to the state.

Organized crime played a key role in a vast assault on the environment. An analysis of public records and interviews with truckers who hauled Ford's waste shows mob-controlled contractors dumped anywhere they could get away with it. They bribed, threatened, even murdered to maintain control of Ford's trash.

Millions of gallons of hazardous waste vanished in their hands. Today, officials say they simply don't have the staff to search for it all.

Government at all levels shares the blame. For years, it allowed mobsters to turn New Jersey into a toxic dumping ground. Initial attempts at statewide environmental regulation in the late 1970s only made the situation worse.

More recently, federal officials let Ford walk away from tons of industrial waste in Ringwood. The Environmental Protection Agency ignored many reports of widespread contamination when it assured residents that Ford had cleaned up their neighborhood. Only now, in the midst of a fifth cleanup in Ringwood, are federal officials paying attention to all the paint, solvents and other Ford debris buried deep in the mountain's abandoned iron mines.

The contamination presents a threat to the region's drinking water, The Record's investigation found. Although officials responsible for the purity of North Jersey's water are confident it is safe today, they worry the poisons may eventually work their way into the drinking water of 2.5 million people.

Ford says its dumping in Ringwood was legal. Indeed, from the time the plant opened in 1955 until 1970, industrial dumping was essentially unregulated. A law banning contamination of streams was not enforced.

Ford says others dumped in Ringwood and share responsibility for the pollution. The company also insists it is doing everything required by the EPA to clean up, in Ringwood and elsewhere. Ford declined requests for an interview and would answer questions from The Record only via e-mail.

The Ramapoughs and others scratching out a living in this remote section of Ringwood don't believe Ford and don't trust the government. They've watched this story unfold over 40 years.

They remember the 18-wheelers leaving brilliant puddles and splashes all the way up Peters Mine Road. They saw workers push the paint sludge, drums and other waste into the old iron mines that riddle the landscape. So many trucks arrived in the dark that residents started calling it the "midnight landfill."

Later, they watched as men in white suits and masks dug contaminants from hills where children played. They got so frustrated about the contamination that remained after the cleanup crews had left that they took to carrying chunks of sludge to meetings with government officials. Now they've hired attorneys.

This summer, New Jersey's environmental chief asked federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation of Ford's cleanup in Ringwood.

"They can't tell me that the stuff we're walking in every day and the air we're breathing up here isn't killing people," said Kelly DeGroat, a longtime resident.

Her son, Collin, died of a rare bone cancer in 2001.

He was 10.

The story of the paint begins 50 years ago this summer, when manufacturing was the lifeblood of North Jersey and Ford was the biggest operation around.

Shortly before noon on July 15, 1955, factory whistles sounded a salute as a caravan of trucks left Ford's aged assembly plant in Edgewater. The trucks -- laden with tools, equipment and assembly plant stock -- snaked 26 miles north to Mahwah.

There, a new plant stood on a meadow just beneath the first vaulting slopes of the Ramapo Mountains and beside the Ramapo River.

Hours later, the production line sprang to life at Ford's new factory. Billed as the largest auto assembly plant in the world, the $70 million factory would eventually roll out a new vehicle every minute, more than triple the rate of Edgewater. It was the cornerstone of an aggressive postwar expansion. Veterans had married, the baby boom had begun and Americans had a voracious appetite for the latest in Detroit horsepower.

"We feel the plant is more than an intent to knock the socks off competition," Henry Ford II said at the plant's dedication that September. "We feel this plant is a substantial lasting contribution to the living standards of all Americans."

Along the factory's 10 miles of assembly lines, there was one dictum: Keep the line moving. "You ain't gonna put a car out just relaxing," said Frank Dollbaum, a 28-year Ford employee and longtime Mahwah worker.

Rolling out all those LTDs, Galaxies and Fairmonts required careful choreography. Raw materials had to arrive on time. Cardboard, leaky batteries and waste paint had to be cleared away quickly. Russell Kerestes' disposal crews struggled to keep up with the waste.

"You have no idea unless you were there what a high-power, stressed-out place that was," he said. "They had a bottom line and 'move it out' was the name of the game."

In the paint department, men wielding spray guns applied an undercoat, primer and topcoat. They pointed and sprayed, and a lot of paint missed its mark. For each Willow Green truck or Rangoon Red convertible, 5 gallons of paint sludge was produced -- 6,000 gallons a day.

The cars went to the parking lot out front. The paint sludge -- a combination of paint and the chemicals and water used to aid in its disposal -- was dumped out back, where the Leni-Lenape Indians once held powwows.

"Not only sludge, but lacquer, thinners," said Jakob Unger, who worked in various departments at the plant, including industrial-waste treatment. "Nobody cared. Who knew about the environment?"

As the relentless production continued and dumpsites on its own property filled up, Ford gave more paint sludge to its trash contractors. Paint and solvents ended up in landfills, alongside roads -- even buried on farms in upstate New York.

"The haulers would tell the farmers, 'Listen, man. I've got a contract for six months. You have a little valley in your property near the side of the road. I'll fill it in.' And they just dumped the stuff off," said Stanley Greenberg, a retired lieutenant in the Rockland County Sheriff's Department.

Greenberg, who spent parts of three decades investigating illegal dumping in New York State, said farmers, landfill workers and some Ford employees were paid to remain silent.

"People were getting paid all over the place," he said. "Ford was known for doing business. They had stuff to get rid of and no place to put it."

No Ford employee was ever charged in the dumping.

"Everything that Ford Motor Co. did was in accordance with the law," said Charles Kiorpes, the plant manager in the late 1960s. "Everything was hauled away in accordance with local regulations."

Still, all the waste worried Richard Mosolgo, the plant's engineering manager in the mid-1970s. He says he wanted to import a Swiss system that would incinerate the sludge on-site. The incinerator generated steam, which Mosolgo wanted to use for power.

"I remember," Mosolgo said, "it used to cost more to get rid of the paint sludge than it cost to buy paint."

He said Ford executives never bought into the idea.

Early on, Ford showed its willingness to dump its trash on the poor.

Carol Dennison was just a girl in the late 1950s, when trucks began dropping loads of sludge and industrial junk near a small cluster of ramshackle rental homes in the woods just north of the plant.

She remembers the stench got so bad the residents had to go down to the river to escape it. "You could smell that paint," she said. "It was always there."

Her small community just across the New York border was known as the Meadows. It had been a place where children spent summers building homemade wagons and playing ball while adults gathered on porches to catch up with neighbors.

Then the trucks rolled in.

Ford didn't own the property and didn't have permission to dump there, according to Arcadis, a company Ford hired to manage cleanups. But that didn't stop them from dumping only yards away from the tiny homes. Up to 2 million gallons of sludge was spread over nearly 3 acres. Drums, trash and more than 20 tons of tires littered the neighborhood.

Few if any residents complained. Most were Ramapoughs. The Ramapoughs claim to be descendants of American Indians, Dutch settlers and freed slaves. Most are poor, clan-oriented and wary of outsiders. Those in the Meadows kept quiet for fear of being evicted.

"We all saw the drivers dumping -- sludge, barrels, all kinds of stuff, but no one said anything," said former resident Victoria DeFreese Powell. "It just became a part of our lives."

The neighborhood was abandoned by the early 1970s, the residents pushed out by flooding after the river was diverted for a highway project. Only the foundations of the houses remain.

But a huge ridge of sludge, 6 feet deep in some places, is still there. All-terrain vehicles have torn rutted paths through the solidified glop. Bulging drums litter Dennison's old playground. Trees grow through tires dumped decades ago.

Near the ridge of sludge, there is evidence the pollutants are spreading. The Record tested a pool of standing water about 20 feet from a storm culvert and found lead at 14 times government safety standards for groundwater. Levels of chromium and arsenic were also elevated. The culvert drains directly into the Ramapo River, a source of drinking water for southern Passaic County and elsewhere. The area flooded early this year, high enough to cover the paint sludge.

To mobsters, Ford's waste was pure gold.

They were the enforcers of a cartel that called the shots in the trash industry. They set the rates and made sure there was no competition, according to a report by the State of New Jersey Commission of Investigation.

Not all haulers were mobsters, but those who were had free rein. Even a big company like Ford had little choice but to deal with mob-controlled haulers. In the early years of the Mahwah plant, environmental regulation was minimal, so government officials weren't asking questions about where waste was dumped.

Ford -- with its tons and tons of packing material, paint sludge and other waste -- was the biggest prize in the state.

A prize worth killing for, it seems.

Joseph "Joey Surprise" Feola was said to have learned that lesson the hard way.

In conversations taped by authorities, mob figures said the Genovese family gangster was lured to a garage in 1965 and strangled as a favor to the notorious godfather Carlo Gambino.

His offense? Stealing the Mahwah stop from a Gambino-controlled company.

Feola's disappearance made the newspapers. They reported that the case had prompted a federal investigation into mob control of waste hauling.

Soon after, Ford changed the way it handled its trash. Mahwah's waste would be going to property that the company owned in Ringwood. To get it there, Ford turned to Charles M. |O'Connor, a small-time hauler who had been removing cardboard from Ford's assembly plant in Metuchen.

The decision was bad news for the Ramapoughs in Ringwood, who had lived for generations on the land that Ford would turn into its dumping ground. But it had a broader impact. It brought thousands of tons of industrial waste to a watershed that serves more than a quarter of the state's population.

The big rigs barreled past the Wanaque Reservoir as they hauled fresh paint sludge and Ford's castoffs up the dirt roads in Ringwood.

Gobs of it splattered over the humps in Peters Mine Road. Residents remember how the dust clouds swirled as the rigs rumbled by their homes. The trucks rolled past chicken coops, kids collecting mealworms to sell as bait and hunters working over their kill in skinning sheds.

Folks didn't seem to mind all that industrial waste being carted to their mountain. In fact, the poor families queued up inside the dump, waiting for the trucks. The residents were eager to scavenge for copper and car parts to sell as scrap. Their children helped sort through the muck.

"That was grocery money for some families," said Bob DeGroat, like most Ramapoughs a lifelong resident of the mountain.

Good money for people scraping by in the old miner's shacks built back when the mountain was still giving up iron ore. In many homes, three generations of Van Dunks, DeGroats or Manns -- three of a dozen last names that prevail among Ramapoughs -- lived together without running water and only wood stoves for heat. Most families survived on vegetables grown in their gardens and game they hunted on the mountain.

Every morning, Charles DeFreese grabbed an old fruit basket and headed down to the mines early enough to beat his neighbors. He climbed down into the paint sludge near St. George Mine and looked for anything that would bring a few bucks. By the time his wife brought his lunch, he was covered in black.

The jackpot was a "snake," a long copper wire. It was worth $30.

"What else were you going to do -- work for the town for 75 cents an hour?" asked DeFreese's wife, Linda.

Jack Walker, who lived closest to the dump, waved the truckers through the gates at the top of Peters Mine Road, night and day.

"They was in and out of here like bees," he said.

He said the truck drivers paid him $30 or so every week to make sure only Ford's waste -- and nobody else's -- was dumped on the mountain. But the real money was in the scavenging.

Walker slogged in his work boots through the muck. Carburetors, wiring and tires stuck out of the fresh piles of sludge, like trash bobbing in an angry sea. The vapors from the solvents and paint thinners nearly overwhelmed him. He had to work fast before the bulldozers moved in. Whatever he missed, the giant claw shoveled into the gaping pit of the mine -- the sludge, the barrels, the cardboard, every last scrap of it.

The gear-grinding and racket up and down Peters Mine Road got unbearable some nights. The drivers dumped everywhere. The sludge oozed like wet cement. It was pushed deep into old mines. It went into swamps and covered mountain hollows. The paint ended up right next to the neighborhood swimming hole.

Back then, the residents didn't know the sludge was loaded with lead and chromium, a carcinogen that also causes nosebleeds. Walker never envisioned a Superfund site 150 yards from his front porch.

"We didn't think at that time that maybe this stuff ain't too good," Walker said.

Choked with debris, the mines sometimes caught fire, burning out of control for weeks and spewing a terrible smoke through the yards. By then, the sludge had become just part of life on the mountain.

Susan Mann, then a schoolgirl, remembers racing from her house when she heard the clanging tailgates of the trucks. The piles of pink- and purple-streaked sludge were pretty. All that Candyapple Red paint Ford used in 1968. It squished under her sneakers and smelled like her mama's nail polish.

As a boy, Mickey Van Dunk chased raccoons at night. He and his cousins would sprint through the woods with flashlights, past weirdly colorful slabs of sludge. He fished for walleye and caught turtles for soup in streams tinted with paint. He molded the sludge into baseballs. Other kids made sludge mud pies. They'd turn over old wrecked car hoods, pile on and slide down a massive mountain of gray paint. They called it Sludge Hill.

Children went home with terrible nosebleeds after playing in the muck.

Years later, many of them would suffer much worse.

Even before O'Connor's trucks arrived, the area bore the scars of a long history of exploitation. For nearly 200 years, miners -- many of them Ramapoughs -- labored beneath the earth there, harvesting one of the richest lodes of iron ore ever discovered. Peters Mine alone had 17 levels that reached nearly 2,000 feet underground. By the time the mines closed for good in the 1950s, the hills were a honeycomb of shafts, tunnels and caverns.

The Ringwood Mines area, as it was known to the outside world, was no paradise. The borough had used it as a municipal dump. Old cars and tires were routinely abandoned there. In one notorious episode, town officials allowed a contractor to spread waste oil on the roads to keep dust down. The oil was later determined to be contaminated with PCBs, now-banned industrial chemicals linked to neurological and skin defects in humans and to cancer in animals.

As early as 1965 -- two years before the first truckload of sludge made its way to Ringwood -- officials were warning Ford that dumping or building on the mountain could have serious consequences for the watershed.

A Ford subsidiary, Ringwood Realty, had come to town with a grandiose proposal to build a $50 million mini-city -- complete with housing, schools, a shopping center and an industrial park -- on a 900-acre tract it had acquired for $500,000.

The plan was opposed by the protectors of the Wanaque Reservoir. The city was never built.

In 1967, Ford's subsidiary again ran afoul of local officials. Ringwood health officials chided the company for allowing two garbage haulers to dump in Cannon and Peters mines. The haulers, according to Ford, were dumping tree stumps and grass clippings from Connecticut -- not waste from the factory. But health officials said they had not been notified of the dumping as required by law. They ordered the dumping stopped.

Seven days later, Ford signed O'Connor to haul the factory's sludge the 10 miles from Mahwah to Ringwood. The state and local health departments and the New Jersey Bureau of Mines complained that the mines were a bad place for industrial waste, but they didn't stop the dumping this time.

No state permits were needed until 1970 -- at which point O'Connor got a landfill permit and continued hauling sludge up the mountain.

The land may have been used before as a dump, but O'Connor was bringing in industrial waste, and in quantities that boggle the mind. In 1969 alone -- O'Connor hauled to Ringwood for four years -- the Mahwah factory generated 84,000 cubic yards of waste, including 1.3 million gallons of paint sludge. That's enough waste to fill 25 Olympic swimming pools.

"The disposal of Mahwah plant waste at the Ringwood site was approved by the appropriate authorities; it was not illegal," said a Ford spokesman, Tony Bianchini of Holt, Mulroy & Germann.

Much of the sludge remains where it was dumped. The federal government listed the tract as a Superfund cleanup site nearly 20 years ago, but declared the mountain clean after Ford removed sludge from just a portion of its old dumping ground. Since then, Ford's contractors have been called back four times to finish the job. In May, a federal official said only half the sludge has been removed.

How dangerous is paint sludge?

In June, a consultant hired by The Record tested a chunk of sludge dug from Angie Van Dunk's driveway at Peters Mine Road and Margaret King Avenue. It contained lead at 100 times the state safety standard for soil. Antimony, a silvery-white metal that can cause heart and lung problems, was also 100 times the level considered safe. Arsenic was nearly nine times the safety standard. Chromium was double the safety level.

Volatile organic compounds like xylenes and ethylbenzene were also present in hazardous concentrations, according to the analysis of the testing company, Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories of Fairfield.

Long-term exposure to any of these chemicals is dangerous: Arsenic can cause lung cancer and skin disorders. Chromium increases the risk of lung cancer. Xylenes can wreak havoc on liver and kidneys and damage fetuses. Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause permanent damage, especially to a child's developing brain.

Some of those elements served as thinners or resins; others gave the paint its color.

How much sludge did the plant produce in its 25 years? Thirty million gallons, according to an estimate based on Ford's documents.

Some cleanup work in Ringwood has been temporarily halted. The sludge is just too contaminated to be accepted by the toxic landfill in Michigan where it was being carted, EPA officials say.

On a humid night in June, government scientists came to Ringwood to confirm what the Ramapoughs have believed for a generation: Some cancer rates are elevated in the neighborhood.

For residents, this was a moment of mixed emotions. For years, nobody had believed them. Not when thyroid cancer struck Bob DeGroat's boy or when Fayelynn Van Dunk's little girl nearly bled to death from a rare platelet disorder. And not when young Collin Milligan died of a tumor.

In fact, in the years since residents stormed an EPA hearing in 1988 to complain about all the sickness on the mountain, federal officials had issued two reports saying the contamination posed no health risks. They did so without ever talking to residents or their doctors.

Now, the Ph.D. stood in front with his PowerPoint presentation at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, a hub in the Ramapough community, where they've mourned their dead and plotted lawsuits against Ford. He stated that six male residents had developed lung cancer over the years -- three times what epidemiologists expected to find.

The lung cancer cases are "statistically significant," said Jerald Fagliano, program manager for the state Department of Health's hazardous site health evaluation program.

Charles DeFreese -- the man who got up early all those years to pick through Ford's castoffs -- was most likely one of those statistics. He died four years ago at age 55.

Other cancers were also elevated: bladder cancer in men and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in both sexes. But scientists can't be sure whether the statistics show a real cancer cluster, with an environmental cause, or just a terrible coincidence. There just aren't enough numbers -- or large enough numbers -- to know. Was the cancer caused by the arsenic and chromium in the soil or by all the cigarette smoking? What about all the unexplained skin rashes, the asthma and rare blood disorders?

The answers may never come, experts say.

"It's incredibly difficult to untangle," said Daniel Wartenberg, director of environmental epidemiology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway.

The Ramapoughs have retained attorneys -- with the Alabama branch of the Johnnie Cochran law firm and the firm of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. -- but they have not filed any lawsuits.

"No one ever told us that stuff was dangerous, and they never asked anyone up here if we want all the things that have been put in our neighborhood -- recycling center, power lines, and all that stuff they dumped," said Linda DeFreese, Charles' widow. "They just did whatever they wanted to us, and now we're all sick from it."

The Ramapoughs are convinced the government doesn't really want to know the truth. Even the latest report on cancers was based on disease and death records. Health officials still refuse to go door to door to document the tales of suffering.

"That's not how we operate," said Arthur Block, senior regional representative of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "We don't do individual health assessments."

If only they would come, says Myrtle Van Dunk, they would see there is sickness in house after house, sickness far out of proportion to a community of 400 or so.

"How can they tell us how sick we are when they haven't even sat down to talk to us?" she asked. "Their numbers are wrong. We have a lot more sick people than they say we do."

Indeed, on tiny Van Dunk Lane, folks tell story after story of misery.

A while back, the EPA hauled away a huge swath of the lava-like sludge -- the size of two minivans -- from Bob DeGroat's back yard. Small patches still pock the front yard. He wonders if this is what gave his son Robert thyroid cancer when he was 10. He wonders if it caused his granddaughter's nosebleed this winter, so severe she had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

Down the road is the house where Collin Milligan used to live. The boy had Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. His mother, Kelly DeGroat, said the chemotherapy and radiation couldn't stop the tumors. They attacked first his spine, then his pelvis.

He died at home on Oct. 26, 2001, blind and paralyzed.

Three weeks after they lost Collin, his older cousin next door died. Pauline Wright was a young mother and pretty preschool aide aching to be a real teacher.

That was cancer, too. Now Pauline's parents are raising her two kids.

The suffering on Van Dunk Lane doesn't stop. Five-year-old Donovan Van Dunk was born with a kidney defect as well as a rare autoimmune disease, Henoch-Schönlein purpura, said his mother, Fayelynn Van Dunk. Recently, she said, his backside and legs were covered in a rash, his testicles swollen and his leg joints aching. Experts aren't sure what causes the disease, but they say exposure to chemicals may be one of the triggers.

Donovan's sister Brianne, a beautiful girl with dark eyes and a mane of curls, was diagnosed with a similarly rare blood disorder when she was 3, Fayelynn said.

"She started throwing up blood," Fayelynn said. "She was almost bleeding to death and we didn't know it."

A nurse told The Record that the girl has outgrown the illness, immune thrombocytopenic purpura. But Fayelynn fears it could return.

And that's not the end of the family's troubles. All four children have asthma. One afternoon, 13-year-old Oceania puffed on her inhaler. Asthma caught Fayelynn's breath, too, as she trudged up the sharp incline to her faded blue house. As her breathing returned to normal, she pulled a lighter out of her tight top and smoked.

"I shouldn't," she acknowledged. "But I get bitchy if I don't."

Kelly DeGroat knows what outsiders say: "Those mine people."

Poor folks who don't take care of themselves.

Making up stories so they can sue Ford and get rich.

Poor folks, they say, whose genes have been weakened by marrying for generations within their own little community of Van Dunks and Manns and DeGroats, related every which way.

Whatever the cause of the Ramapoughs' health problems, the fact is their environment is contaminated. Because their very existence depends on the vegetables they grow, the fish they catch and the animals they hunt, the contamination is inescapable.

"I'm not just worried about my children, but my children's children," Kelly DeGroat said. "What will this place be like for them? Will our children even be around to have their own children?"

The Record tested a stream in the neighborhood and found it tainted with benzene, a chemical known to cause leukemia and other blood disorders. Residents say paint sludge was dumped near the stream's source. The stream flows DayGlo orange -- colored by iron -- beside a spot where children used to wait for their school bus. The iron could come from the indigenous ore in the area or from ferric chloride, a chemical found in paint sludge.

Francine Van Dunk remembers when the stream ran clear and she collected it in jugs for drinking water.

In 2001, her husband, Arthur, got the terrible news. He had a tumor so rare it bewildered even the experts. "It's in God's hands," they told Francine.

Arthur, a deliveryman who'd spent much of his life hiking and hunting on the mountain, had pancreatic cancer. Dr. Audrey Hamilton, his oncologist at the Denville offices of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, called the tumor "a very rare bird. We were perplexed."

He died two years ago at age 54.

A toxicologist who once worked for the EPA has surveyed the area for the Ramapoughs. He says there's an added health threat from what scientists call "toxic synergism" -- the hazard that can occur when chemicals interact.

"People are living cheek to jowl in this stuff," said Bruce Moholt, the toxicologist.

Angie Van Dunk is convinced the sludge in her driveway -- sludge tested by The Record -- gave her 4-year-old son lead poisoning. The Record's test found even the dirt alongside the sludge exceeded safety standards for lead and arsenic.

"He keeps putting his hands in his mouth while he plays in the dirt," Angie said, as her son chased his cousins across the yard, fingers to lips.

Scientists recently concluded that there is no safe threshold for lead exposure in children.

Doctors told Angie to keep her little boy away from the dirt when tests on file at Chilton Memorial Hospital in Pompton Plains found the lead in his blood was at 16 micrograms per deciliter -- well over the 10 per deciliter the CDC considers unsafe. Angie and her kids moved out of her house in August and now shuttle between a cousin in West Milford and a sister in Paterson.

Angie doesn't know if they'll ever be able to return home. Sludge removal around houses has been delayed, EPA officials said, because the residents' lawyers won't allow them onto the properties. So the sludge just sits there in Angie's driveway.

"This place is just dangerous," Kelly DeGroat said.

Her son's birthday is coming up. Time once again for Kelly and her surviving boys to hold hands in a circle around the pear tree in the yard that has become Collin's memorial. They'll say a prayer and release balloons with messages to Collin from his brothers.

Nearly four years after Collin's death, there's still sickness in the tidy ranch house adorned with pictures of Native Americans. Kelly's 18-year-old, Devin, and 10-year-old, Deion, have asthma. At 35, Kelly underwent a hysterectomy because of painful fibroids.

Now, Devin has joint pain and swelling that keep him from playing sports. The doctors say it's nothing.

That's what they used to say about Collin.

Even those who dumped the paint were anxious about its impact.

O'Connor didn't like hauling sludge from the plant, but did so under pressure from Ford, according to Russell Kerestes, who ran the Ford operation for O'Connor.

"There was a great deal of concern on O'Connor's part about the sludge. But it was our feeling that when it dried it became inert," he said. "The paint sludge was a very small part of the whole operation. Wood and cardboard overwhelmed everything else."

There were few environmental regulations at the time, Kerestes said. "The environment didn't have the priority it has now," he said. "The only real test for a landfill back then was if it was flammable or not."

Shareholders in O'Connor's Ford venture included Kerestes, a former banker who would go on to lead a trash-industry lobbying group, and attorney Joseph Letcher, a Bergen County undersheriff and later a municipal judge in Ho-Ho-Kus. The business was financed by a bank run by Garfield Mayor Gotthold Rose, a prominent Republican who once led the Bergen County detective squad.

Even so, O'Connor Trucking and Haulage was soon in deep financial trouble.

The company fell behind in removing Ford's waste. Equipment kept breaking. Vandals set so many fires in Ringwood they had to hire a local man to guard the site with a pistol, Kerestes said.

"It was a 24-hour-a-day operation and all kinds of things happen in that type of operation," Kerestes said.

Worse, organized crime wanted the Ford contract. Letcher said O'Connor talked to him about the mob in the late 1960s.

"He said they were putting pressure on him to turn over his business to them," said Letcher, who maintains that he merely incorporated O'Connor's Ford venture and had no role in the business beyond that.

O'Connor died in 1983. Attempts to reach a son in Pennsylvania were unsuccessful.

The company also ran afoul of Dean Noll, the vigilant and persistent protector of the Highlands watershed. Now deceased, Noll was chief engineer of the Wanaque Reservoir. He urged state agencies to close dumps and opposed development that might taint the reservoir.

Noll was farsighted. In a letter written to state environmental officials in the late 1960s, he warned that a generation could pass before the full impact of pollution became obvious.

In 1967, the year Ford began trucking plant waste to Ringwood, Noll fired off a protest. He kept up a steady drumbeat of objection. By 1971, he was taking dead aim at Ford's dumping:

"Drainage through the existing landfill operation is polluting [a stream through the site] which is only 8,000 feet along the run of the stream from the Wanaque Reservoir," Noll wrote to state environmental officials.

Ford's own documents from the time show company officials felt Noll was right.

In an interoffice memo the automaker gave to the EPA recently, one Ford executive said: "The area used as a dumpsite for many years is leaching into a public water supply and represents a contingent liability."

In another document, a second Ford executive blamed O'Connor for getting the company in trouble in Ringwood: "This stream became definitely polluted as a result of paint and other refuse finding its way into the water course."

Ford officials decided O'Connor had to go.

In April of 1971, the company fired O'Connor and hired Industrial Services of America, a Kentucky-based firm that held disposal contracts at Ford plants in Louisville. ISA would go on to become a national player in the waste business. In making the move, Ford expected that ISA would be able to dump in Ringwood. But the permit for dumping there was already in jeopardy -- and would ultimately be revoked.

"I go to a big meeting with these Ford people and they say we have this land, these mines, but they also have these people that live on it," recalled ISA founder Harry Kletter in an interview this summer.

Kletter said he told Ford executives that, as an out-of-state company, he needed to bring in a local hauler to help with the job. Kletter, now semiretired as ISA's "chief visionary officer," said one of his company's local salesman recommended a carting family based in New York's Orange County.

"I didn't know too much of their background, he said, "but having been around for a while, I knew there were some shadows."

During the eight years he hauled Ford's sludge, Charlie Oetzel played a cat-and-mouse game with the police. He and other truck drivers would leave the Ford plant with a 20-cubic-yard truckload of waste and get directions on the road via radio.

The sludge went wherever the cops weren't watching, he said.

Oetzel remembers unloading sludge by a stream that fed the Ramapo River. The water ran green, blue, red and yellow, he said. The battery acid burned through work gloves.

"It stunk like the devil, it did," said Oetzel, now 76 and retired in Monroe, N.Y. "Especially in the warm weather. -- You got a lot of fumes coming off the load. You'd look in the mirror and you could see the fumes coming off of it."

In the 1970s, Oetzel drove for the Mongellis. The Mongellis were the family that Kletter's ISA brought in. The family had had a tenuous connection with Ford before ISA arrived. Ringwood Realty had allowed their trucks to dump in Ringwood in 1967.

The family's mob connections would come to light later. The 1989 report of New Jersey's SCI said that Louis J. Mongelli was an associate of Vincent "Chin" Gigante, the muttering, bathrobe-wearing boss of the Genovese crime family. The Chin's brother was on the Mongelli payroll, the report said.

In 1992, Louis and brother Robert pleaded guilty to federal racketeering, bribery and money laundering charges related to their hauling business. Two years later, Louis vanished into the federal witness-protection program. The Record couldn't locate Robert or Louis Mongelli, but in an interview this summer their younger brother Joseph denied that the family had any connections to organized crime.

Kletter maintains that Ford's Mahwah waste was handled properly while he was on the job. "I was up there a lot. I had [contracts at several] plants and I was responsible to Ford," he said. "So I had people going up there all the time to make sure it was handled correctly."

Within two years, Kletter said, his company was out of the picture and the Mongellis were in control of Ford's toxic waste.

In the Mahwah plant's final years, haulers dumped Ford's waste anywhere they could -- in landfills, on farms, near streams that fed the Ramapo River and above waters that fed the Wanaque Reservoir. Organized crime ruled the trash business, and the automaker employed contractors that dumped according to the mob's rules.

Oetzel remembers routinely being ordered by the Mongellis to break the law. He covered his truck's logos with magnetic signs to conceal their identity from police.

Oetzel said he dumped Ford's paint sludge in more than a dozen landfills and other sites in New Jersey and upstate New York between 1972 and 1980.

He remembers dumping near the Wanaque Reservoir and in Wanaque's municipal landfill, now the upcounty campus of Passaic County Community College. In the woods behind the school, The Record this summer found about a dozen 55-gallon industrial drums, the kind sometimes used by Ford. No paint sludge was visible on the land.

Oetzel often headed south to Kearny or other landfills in the Meadowlands. A trail of spilled sludge would slop behind him on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Even farmers waved the trucks in. Another retired Mongelli driver, who asked to remain unidentified for fear of retribution, said he dumped in woods and swamps next to upstate New York farms. The farmers were paid about $1,000 a truckload by the Mongellis, the second driver said.

Oetzel said he usually dumped at landfills authorized to accept only household trash -- in early morning or late afternoon, when no one was around to see. Dump workers bulldozed a hole in the garbage for Ford's waste. Oetzel would back up his vehicle, tip back the truck bed and let sludge slide out like melted cheese. The hole was quickly covered, the evidence buried.

Oetzel hauled to the Warwick landfill, a private dump in the woods above Greenwood Lake. The lake drains into the Wanaque Reservoir system.

Bill Decker, the landfill's caretaker, described the illegal dumping in a tape-recorded interview later used as evidence by a New York State Assembly committee investigating toxic waste haulers. He told of a steady stream of "paint, lacquer, brake fluid -- all that [expletive] from the Ford plant; that's what's running down in there; that's what's going in the water table."

New York shut the landfill in 1980. Weeks later, Decker was found dead on local railroad tracks. The cause was listed as heart failure, though neighbors told New York State's Assembly Environment Committee that the middle-aged Decker had no heart problems.

At the Wallkill landfill in Orange County, Donald "Dutch" Smith ran a bulldozer from 1971 until the dump closed in 1974. Once a week, he remembers, trucks pulled in with metal and cardboard barrels stamped "Ford Motor Co." and "Mahwah Plant."

"They dumped stuff way up in the back, in different places, in special holes and stuff like that, so you know they was dumping stuff that wasn't supposed to be dumped," said Smith, 75, who still lives in a ramshackle trailer next to the landfill. "I was digging down right to the water table to dump stuff, and you wasn't supposed to do that either."

The government tried to bring some order to this toxic Wild West in 1976. Congress imposed new rules on the disposal of hazardous waste. Every shipment of industrial waste would have to include a manifest, paperwork meant to track the material "from cradle to grave." Two years later, New Jersey imposed its own manifest system.

The Mongellis and others ran their trucks right through those laws.

Mobsters set up shell companies. Truckers falsified manifests. New Jersey, praised for some of the country's toughest laws, had only four inspectors to track thousands of truck movements each month.

The environmental laws had an unintended consequence: Unscrupulous haulers got rich. They used the stringent new requirements to justify higher fees -- then went ahead and dumped hazardous waste wherever they could get away with it.

A 55-gallon drum of chemicals that had been hauled for $20 now cost up to $100, said Harold Kaufman, a star government informer who worked for mafia haulers while undercover for the FBI.

Moving the Mahwah sludge could mean as much as $500,000 a year in profit. And that didn't include the old batteries, cardboard, waste oil and other trash the Ford plant pumped out every day. "The biggest contract in New Jersey," Kaufman called it.

As the dumping continued, the Mongellis prospered. Joseph Mongelli said the family also hauled for four Ford facilities in Michigan.

He said the company properly disposed of all of Ford's sludge at the old Bergen County landfill in Lyndhurst, now part of the massive EnCap development.

Ford's sludge will probably never be completely accounted for. Millions of gallons essentially disappeared. Mob-connected haulers didn't keep records -- at least, not honest ones. What Ford officials knew about the dumping is less clear.

The police officers and prosecutors who pursued illicit dumpers during the last years of the Mahwah plant say mob haulers had to have inside help to keep their exorbitant contracts.

"Somebody at Ford had to be greased," said Dirk Ottens, a retired state police detective who led several toxic-dumping investigations in New Jersey in the 1970s.

Ottens and former partner Jack Penny said many industries fell under the sway of shady carters at the time.

"The mentality then was: I give it to a licensed hauler, he'll take care of it," said A. Patrick Nucciarone, who tried environmental cases at the time for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark. "Is that criminal? Probably not. Is it negligent? Probably so."

No one inside the Mahwah plant was ever charged. Ford, for its part, declined to answer questions about past waste haulers and practices, telling The Record it had "limited historical records."

But it's clear that even after the last car -- a two-tone Fairmont Futura -- rolled off the line in Mahwah, Ford couldn't escape the mob. Four years after the plant closed in 1980, it hired the Mongellis to help clean up the waste still on its property.

Trucks have been hauling sludge in Ringwood again. Only this time, they've been taking it off the mountain.

Surveyors came out this summer to search the woods for sludge now hidden under lush tangles of weeds. They marked tree branches and rocks with pink fluorescent spray paint, though they never told residents what the marks meant.

A tractor-trailer rumbled past Mickey Van Dunk's house as he gardened one May afternoon. He tended the tidy rows of onions peeking out of the earth. There's not much else he can do. The OxyContin quits working in half the time it's supposed to.

Hardened boils look burned into his 34-year-old face. He's found it's just easier to tell people it's from a car accident.

A massive scar runs across his back where doctors removed a kickball's worth of pus and tissue. He lost huge swaths of skin when they cut out infected sweat glands. In all he's had surgery 17 times since his skin first erupted in boils when he was a teen.

He has a rare condition called hidradenitis suppurativa. "He's one of the most severe cases I've ever seen. He has it on his face even, which is unusual," said his surgeon, Dr. Parmad Ganchi, a Harvard-trained expert at UMDNJ in Newark.

The disease seems to be genetic in some respects; but many who have studied it believe exposure to pollutants can make it worse.

In his dreams, Mickey Van Dunk is outdoors, wading in water or ice fishing. All the things he used to do on the mountain before he was sick. He dreamed of having a brood of boys and driving backhoes and dump trucks at construction sites. They'd live in the house where he grew up, where Mickey and his brothers wore a path from the yard up the hill into Ringwood State Park. That's were he worked 12 years ago as a laborer, his last job.

The smell of his skin and the pus drives him crazy some days. He's thought of suicide. "I'm so tired of going under the blade," he said.

He learned to undress in the dark to spare his wife, Linda. They tried to have children, but Mickey is sterile now, he says.

"They told me there's something in my body that keeps building this pus," he said. "I really believe it comes from all this crap."

Janet, his mom, is convinced her boy was sickened by the contamination that is all around them, in the woods they hunt in, the fish they eat, maybe even in the 20 pounds of deer meat in the freezer.

"Nobody's going to change my mind," she said.

She's certain of something else. Mickey won't have any more surgery.

"Why keep cuttin' on him?" she said as she smoked a cigarette on the front porch. "There's nothing left to cut."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News