Fri, Mar

Senator Weighs in on Ford Cleanup

Homeowners living on the former Ford Motor Co. industrial dump and federal officials are stalemated over how far investigators should go in determining if dangerous waste is buried under homes and yards.

Jan. 26—RINGWOOD — Homeowners living on the former Ford Motor Co. industrial dump and federal officials are stalemated over how far investigators should go in determining if dangerous waste is buried under homes and yards.

Now, one of the state's U.S. senators has weighed in, calling on the nation's top environmental official to assume the worst, and break the deadlock in residents' favor.

In a letter Tuesday to the Environmental Protection Agency's chief, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., asked that the EPA test all of the 48 homesteads that sit on Ford's former dumping ground for chemicals that the residents say are killing them and causing life-threatening illnesses.

Lautenberg also said testing for toxic waste in Upper Ringwood should be expanded, given continuing discoveries of previously unknown dump locations.

"EPA has agreed to test for the presence of contamination and sludge on some residential properties, yet the residents of Ringwood are insisting that a larger group of homes in the area may also be contaminated and should be tested as well," the letter to EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt states.

"The community justifiably lacks faith in EPA's standard approaches to identifying contaminated areas that have failed to protect them for the last 20 years," the letter continues.

Leavitt could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The letter was sent as massive chunks of dried paint sludge are being removed from the site — the fifth time a cleanup has been necessary since Ford dumped industrial waste from 1969 to 1973 on what is now residential property, borough-owned land and part of Ringwood State Park.

Initially declared a Superfund site, it was taken off the list in 1994, but residents continued to find sludge in yards as well as in Ringwood State Park over the years.

Recent testing has found high concentrations of lead, arsenic and benzene, and numerous other pollutants including traces of cancer-causing PCBs.

Members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe, who live on the site, say they have high incidences of leukemia, asthma, anemia and severe skin rashes from the toxins.

Area streams flow to the Wanaque Reservoir, but officials say the sporadic contamination found in monitoring wells has not affected the water reserves serving 2 million North Jersey residents.

Lautenberg's letter referred to ongoing surveys of pollution even as contractors begin digging out mounds of newly discovered sludge on state and borough land. As that cleanup begins, residential properties sit untouched, despite the fact that sludge noticeably sticks out of one residence's front and side yards.

EPA's cleanup plan calls for digging only on 15 properties that were vacant when Ford was dumping. Contractors will do visual inspections on other properties, built prior to the dumping, and dig only when sludge is detected.

Residents refuse to sign access agreements allowing contractors on their land until the federal government promises to do more than a visual inspection. They want soil dug up and tested on all the properties.

"If the residents allow EPA to come out and look at their land and then declare it clean, what recourse do they have?" asked Matthew Plache, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the residents. "They want thorough scientific testing to be sure the land they are living on is safe."

"We wouldn't expect to find contamination at homes built before Ford's dumping or the owners would be able to show EPA where the sludge is located," said EPA spokesman Jim Haklar.

"But this is only the initial stage of the investigation; we're not ruling anything out."

Not good enough, say the residents. Lautenberg agrees.

"Based on the site's long history of woefully inadequate cleanup, I call on EPA to err on the side of caution this time and to test the additional requested properties," Lautenberg wrote. "A majority of the Ringwood residents have serious health problems which they believe are related to the community's ongoing soil and water contamination, and frankly, it is the least we can do to try to restore some public confidence in the government's clean-up process. The EPA has a responsibility to take steps to make sure all the toxic contaminants are removed."

Lautenberg has promised to continue pressing for a thorough cleanup. He serves on the Environmental and Public Works Committee, which has oversight over the EPA. People up for EPA appointments must go before this committee, said Alex Formuzis, an aide in Lautenberg's office.

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© 2005, The Record, Hackensack, N.J. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.