Ringwood residents get chance to weigh in on Superfund site’s future

RINGWOOD — Residents will have a chance next month to weigh in on a measure that could force the excavation of 166,000 tons of contaminated soil at Ford’s Superfund site by blocking the Borough Council’s plans to build a new recycling center there.

The council on Tuesday night scheduled a public hearing for Aug. 2 at 8 p.m. at Borough Hall on an ordinance submitted this month by a group of residents who want the pollution dug up and hauled away.

After taking public comment, the council is expected to vote on the measure that night. If the council rejects the ordinance as supporters expect they will, it will automatically be placed on the November ballot for a townwide vote.

“We want to get a lot of people out at the hearing to show the council how much this town wants this pollution gone,” said Lisa Chiang, a resident who has spearheaded the petition drive that garnered more than 300 signatures.

The pollution dates to the 1960s when contractors for Ford Motor Co. began hauling toxic paint sludge and other waste from the company’s Mahwah plant and dumping it in the mountains of Upper Ringwood and lower Rockland County.

Excavate or cap?

The Ramapoughs, a Native American tribe who live next to the site, have long said that Ford’s waste is responsible for disease and premature death in their community although no health study has been conclusive.

A plan by the EPA to place a barrier over the O’Connor Disposal Area, a dumping ground off Peters Mine Road, rather than excavate 166,000 tons of polluted material has angered many residents.

The EPA had been poised to order a full removal when the borough decided to build a recycling center on the site, causing the EPA to agree that placing a barrier over the pollution would be an appropriate solution. The move lowers Ford and the borough’s cleanup bill from $32.6 million for excavation to $5.4 million for the capping plan. Ford will pay for the recycling facility.

The council and their consultants have said that the capping plan will protect public health and limit the amount borough taxpayers would have to pay for a cleanup.

The site has garnered renewed interest from politicians, environmental advocates and some residents this year after The Record revealed the EPA, Ford and the borough had found high levels of a dangerous chemical — 1,4-dioxane — in groundwater at the site and didn’t tell the public for months.

The council voted in May to suspend work on the recycling center pending a full investigation of 1,4-dioxane, which government scientists believe causes cancer. Chiang asked council members on Tuesday how long they intend to leave the project on hold. Councilman Jim Martocci said that the borough is anxious to see the results of another round of groundwater testing just completed by the EPA.

“The council will not make a decision until we have definitive information from the EPA as to what the findings are,” Martocci said.

Legal notice

Mayor John Speer said Tuesday that the full text of the proposed ordinance would be published as a legal notice in local publications prior to Aug. 2 so that residents have a chance to review it.

The council “will take some action whether it is to approve the ordinance as is or to take some other action” Speer said of the Aug. 2 meeting.

Ringwood is one of about 130 municipalities in New Jersey that allows residents to introduce ordinances without any action by their governing body.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Sierra Club along with Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, and Josh Gottheimer, a Democratic congressional candidate, canceled a news conference to highlight the issue at the site Wednesday morning less than an hour before it was to begin. A spokesman for Gottheimer said a “last-minute scheduling change” was to blame but would not elaborate. The news conference will be held at a later date.

The abrupt change disappointed about two dozen residents who had gathered near the site Wednesday in anticipation of the news conference. Instead they began discussing strategies for what will likely be a contentious campaign this fall over the future of the site.

Chuck Stead, a professor of environmental studies at Ramapo College, told the group that Ford had removed 97,000 tons of toxic material from Rockland County because local officials put pressure on the company.

“It’s more than a doable thing,” he said of excavating Ringwood. “To me the only difference between the New York and New Jersey side of the state line is the political will.”

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