Ringwood council puts cleanup question on hold

The battle over whether tons of contaminated soil will be removed from Ringwood’s Superfund site continues after the Borough Council said Wednesday it may ask a judge to invalidate an ordinance proposed by residents that would require the pollution to be dug up and hauled away.

The move by the council at the end of a five-hour hearing early Wednesday morning continued to show the deep divisions between those who want the pollution removed and those, like the council, who believe placing a barrier over the site will still protect public health and avoid a multimillion-dollar cleanup bill for taxpayers.

Related: Ringwood residents submit petition to force full cleanup of Superfund site

Bob Spiegel, former chair of the Ringwood Superfund Citizen Advisory Group, addresses the council.
The meeting began with about 75 people packed into the municipal building’s small meeting room.
Bob Spiegel, former chair of the Ringwood Superfund Citizen Advisory Group, addresses the council.
The O’Connor Disposal Area
At issue is the wording in several passages of an ordinance created by petition signed by more than 300 residents. It calls on Ford Motor Co. to remove all of the toxic paint sludge its contractors dumped from its former Mahwah plant 50 years ago in the mountains of Ringwood next to a neighborhood. The measure seeks to block the council’s controversial plan to build a recycling center on 166,000 tons of polluted material at the former O’Connor Disposal Area instead of removing it.

An outside law firm used by the council said the ordinance contained “serious legal flaws” that would make it impossible for town officials to carry out its provisions.

Residents supporting the measure implored the council to support excavation during the mara­thon meeting at the municipal building.

“Help us fight them,” Maryann Lane, a 35-year resident of Ringwood, said to the council of Ford. “They’re the bad guys. You shouldn’t be the bad guys.”

Related: Feds approve Ringwood plan for recycling center on Superfund site

Others, like Rory Buchanan, a resident supporting the cap, said he fears excavation would make his property tax bill skyrocket.

“I want everybody to realize that someone is going to have to pay millions of dollars and it’s going to be the homeowners,” he said.

Related: New danger found at Ringwood Superfund site

The EPA had called for excavation three years ago, but changed its plans when the borough said it wanted to build a recycling center, to be paid for by Ford, at O’Connor, a longtime dumping ground off Peters Mine Road. The EPA approved a plan last year that would allow the pollution to remain on site under a barrier with the recycling center on top. The plan would drop Ford and the borough’s cleanup costs to $5.4 million for capping from $32.6 million for excavation.

Mayor John Speer has acknowledged that the borough’s liability drove the decision for a cheaper cleanup, which would be paid for entirely by Ford and Ringwood’s insurance carriers. He and other town officials have defended the recycling plan, saying the EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection believe capping would protect residents from exposure to soil polluted with arsenic, lead, benzene and other harmful substances.

Ringwood is responsible for a portion of the cleanup because officials in the 1960s and ’70s allowed Ford to dump at three sites in Upper Ringwood where many members of the Ramapough Native American tribe live. Ramapoughs have reported serious illnesses and early deaths, which they contend are the result of exposure to pollution at the site. No studies have made a direct link, however.

The proposed ordinance was written by a lawyer on behalf of Ringwood Cares, a group of residents who banded together this spring to call for a full excavation of O’Connor after a dangerous chemical, 1,4-dioxane, was discovered in groundwater at the Superfund site.

Drinking water has not been affected, according to officials. However, the discovery of 1,4-dioxane prompted Borough Manager Scott Heck to suspend preliminary work on the recycling center until the source of the chemical is identified in a large scale groundwater study whose results are due next year.

Ringwood is one of about 100 municipalities that allow residents to introduce ordinances without the Borough Council’s consent if they get enough signatures on a petition. Such proposed ordinances must then be placed on a ballot for a public vote.

The vote by the council to challenge the ordinance makes it uncertain whether the ordinance will make it on the November ballot. Members of Ringwood Cares said they are willing to work with the borough to shore up any ambiguous language but were still confident it would hold up in court.

The meeting began with about 75 people packed into the municipal building’s small meeting room and featured several barbs thrown back and forth between residents and council members. Many of the two dozen who addressed the council wanted the pollution hauled away. They said it was the only way to ensure that it would no longer be a threat to public health. But about a half dozen residents said they were concerned excavation would raise property taxes significantly.

As the meeting ticked past midnight and the crowd began to dwindle, Heck said the ordinance was poorly written and did not define key terms like asking for a “full remediation” of the site. Heck said that he has agreements with Ford that the company would pay for 85 percent of the capping plan while the borough’s insurance carriers would pick up 15 percent, resulting in little to no taxpayer dollars going to the project. But if the ordinance calling for removal is passed as-is by voters on Nov. 8, Heck said the town would then have to renegotiate with Ford and the insurance companies on the higher $32.6 million cleanup cost. He said he expects local taxpayers would be on the hook for a portion of the excavation.

The council passed a resolution at the end of the meeting that would seek to have a judge decide whether the ordinance is written correctly. Heck and other town officials said they would like to work with Ringwood Cares to correct the wording in the ordinance. It was unclear Wednesday how much time the group still has to get the measure on the November ballot.

“Our lawyer is reviewing the legal precedent to see what kind of recourse we have and advise us about how to proceed, though I don’t expect us to make any definitive decisions for at least a few days,” said Lisa Chiang, who led the petition effort.

The site has a history of problems.

The EPA declared the area clean and took it off the Superfund list of the nation’s worst toxic sites in 1994 even though there was evidence of an enormous amount of paint sludge in the area. A 2005 series by The Record documented the pollution and prompted the area to be relisted as a Superfund site — the first time that had ever happened in the program’s three decades.

The EPA had pledged to adequately clean up the site and required Ford to remove more than 50,000 tons of tainted soil. But the decision last year to allow capping enraged many residents.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com

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