The Voters should decide!

The recent discovery of 1,4-dioxane found in the groundwater at the Ringwood Superfund site and the failure of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to report it or do something about it has angered many people. Citizens are demanding accountability and the site be cleaned up properly. The town has proposed putting a recycling center on the O’Connor landfill that would be built by the Ford Motor Company. This site would only be capped, leaving toxins in the ground to further pollute the water and environment.

People at the Citizen Advisory Group meeting wanted to know how they could get the site cleaned up and open the Record of Decision. I suggested that since Ringwood is a Faulkner Act town, they could issue an Initiative and Referendum. This is a technique that we have used successfully in the past in the area and we changed the Faulkner Act because of a referendum. We’re glad that people are working on doing this, but wanted to stress the importance of taking it seriously and doing it the right way. If you don’t do it right and lose, it could do more damage to the community and environment.

The referendum needs to be written without any wiggle room to actually block the borough from putting the recycling center on the landfill. After it is written, we need to gather enough signatures of registered voters on it; 20 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election of the General Assembly. This was a little over 2,000 people so you need a minimum of 600 signatures but preferably double that to make sure they are all counted. After you get these and are certified, the council can either adopt the ordinance or it goes on the ballot.

If the ordinance goes on the ballot, there needs to be a real campaign, just like for candidates in an election, to block the recycling center. The campaign would have to include a committee, fundraising, a PAC, and registering with ELEC. They would use fliers and mailers, advertisements, and canvassing to gather votes. This is a very serious process and shouldn’t be taken lightly. While the process may be complicated and there is a lot of work involved, it is how you win. We have used this tactic successfully previously to protect Ringwood from over-development and destruction of environmentally destructive areas.

In 1992 Ringwood’s environment was under attack. The borough’s pro-environmental mayor resigned from office after being harassed. There was a town group set up by development and mining interests, Wise Use, brought in to attack environmentalists. While this was happening, the Borough Council of Ringwood switched sides. They wanted to bring in sewers from the Wanaque sewerage authority for Czura/Wallace to build over a thousand condominiums on Skyline Drive on the mountains above Ringwood. This would have had tremendous environmental impacts and cost the people millions of dollars to build the sewer extensions. It would have led to more development above the Wanaque reservoir.

The town council was going to push the project through despite public opposition. They passed an ordinance to allow Ringwood to hook in to the Wanaque Valley Regional Sewerage Authority to build more sewers. We started a petition campaign to challenge that ordinance under the Faulkner Act and put it on the ballot. We ran an active signature campaign, gathering three times the signatures we needed and getting the referendum on the ballot.

We used fundraising through bake sales and house parties to raise over $22,000 for our campaign that included canvassing, direct mail, and lawn signs. People came out and volunteered to do leafleting and make their own signs. Throughout this we were still binge harassed; we received hate mail and threats. We even had to go to the NJ Supreme Court to get cable access to air our video showing members of the town council arm-twisting the public to support sewers.

The other side, which was well-funded, had the support of the Republican Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and developers and large landowners in town. They spent tens of thousands of dollars, probably over $120,000. On Election Day, in spite of this fierce battle, the people won. The referendum passed 3,500 to 1,000, blocking sewers from coming into Ringwood and preserving our mountains and trout streams. This large public outcry also helped lead to the passage of the Highlands Act, protecting this area and keeping out sewers permanently.

For over 40 years the Ramapo people of Upper Ringwood have lived a toxic nightmare. The town council has sold them out with this recycling center and the EPA has gone along with it. This initiative to place a recycling center on the ballot is an important step forward in helping the Ramapo getting the cleanup they deserve. You have to be prepared for a real campaign and a real battle. If the voters approve the referendum, this could help force a full cleanup of Upper Ringwood and maybe end this toxic nightmare once and for all. We believe that the people should decide, not the borough and not the EPA.

I am a third-generation property owner in Ringwood and have been chair of the Environmental Commission and served on the Planning Board for Ringwood. I co-founded Skylands Clean and helped lead the successful referendum campaign against the sewers. I was the only person to oppose de-listing the site from the Superfund List in 1992 and have been fighting for years to preserve the area.

Jeff Tittel is director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

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