On Wednesday evening, HBO will premiere its new documentary on the Ramapough Indians’ struggle against the Ford Motor Company on the campus of the college named for the “mountain people.”
“Mann V. Ford,” debuting at Ramapo College, follows Upper Ringwood's Ramapough community, which filed a class-action lawsuit against Ford in 2005. Mahwah’s Ford plant dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste - much of which can still be seen today - into Ringwood and the surrounding areas.
The suit, according to filmmakers, is an attempt by the Ramapough people to “secure a healthy future for their children.”
“The executive producer came to us and asked if we’d be interested in a film on Native Americans and environmental issues,” said Micah Fink, one of the film’s directors.
“I researched topics for about seven months, and I came across a New York Times article on the Mann vs. Ford lawsuit. When I did more research and found out about the plight of the Ramapough people in The Record’s investigative series, I knew this was an amazing story,” he said.
Wayne Mann, the community leader whose name graces the lawsuit and the film title, is the lead plaintiff in the case against the company that operated America’s largest automobile manufacturing plant in Mahwah from 1955—1980.
The film follows Mann, fellow community leader Vivian Milligan, and their lawyers from The Cochran Firm, for five years. The plaintiffs claim the paint sludge and other toxic waste dumped by the Ford Company is responsible for the host of rare diseases that plagues nearly every family in the community, and investigations have supported the suspicion.
In 2005, The Record released a “Toxic Legacy” report, which investigated the dumped waste.
In The Record’s estimation, 6,000 gallons of the excess paint sludge - that which did not make it onto the cars - was produced everyday, as the plant turned out a car a minute.
During the paper’s eight-month investigation, it reported finding high levels of lead, arsenic, xylenes and other pollutants in Ringwood, finding that this contamination was spreading throughout the area.
The Record found that the chemicals in the area have been linked to many of the diseases the Ramapough people, who claim they are descendants of Native Americans, Dutch settlers and slaves, suffer from. The Record’s report showed not only that levels of multiple cancer and other disease-causing chemicals were found in Ringwood, but that the substances are hazardous to human health, and that Ramapough neighborhoods in Ringwood suffer from elevated cancer rates.
The report listed a seemingly unending number of Ringwood Ramapoughs who died at young ages of rare diseases. Though other risk factors exist within the small community of about 400 or so, the fact remains that the land off which they survive – fish, hunt, and plant – is contaminated with Ford’s waste.
Initially, the report found, mafia-controlled waste haulers dumped the sludge. When Ford streamlined the process in the mid-1960’s, the dumping ground was moved primarily to the abandoned mine shafts in Ringwood - the land the Ramapough people had called home for generations.
Compounding the ramifications of this move, the dumped sludge flowed into the Wanaque River, which provides drinking water for over a quarter of the Garden State’s residents. Questions still loom about the long-term effects of this, though water company officials claim the water New Jerseyans currently drink is safe.
From the mid-70’s to the time the plant closed its doors in 1980, the mafia regained control of dumping. The Record called this time period a “toxic wild west,” in that sludge was dumped throughout the surrounding areas in northern New Jersey and the lower Hudson Valley region in New York.
The investigation found that Ford repeatedly dumped waste in poor communities, and knowingly dumped sludge into a stream that feeds into the Wanaque Reservoir. This was reportedly done through organized crime and government manipulation, coupled with relaxed environmental regulations and clean-up efforts. Ford told The Record the company’s dumping was legal, that it was not the only company that dumped waste in the area, and it has been complying with EPA clean-up efforts since the area was classified as a “Superfund” site in the 1980’s.
The EPA names Superfunds as part of its program to clean up hazardous waste sites across the country.
Ford was ordered by the government to clean up the sludge. After five attempts, the government said in the mid-2000’s that only half of the paint sludge had been removed from the Ringwood dumps. However, the government declared the site “cleaned” after the first attempt in 1994. Clean-up crews only returned after residents reported seeing more sludge.
“The curious thing about the EPA’s Superfund Program is that the polluters direct the clean up,” filmmaker Micah Fink told Patch.
“That’s one of the major questions the film raises. Can we trust this clean up?”
In 2006, the Ramapough people made history in answering that question. They successfully got Upper Ringwood put back on the Superfund list after it had been removed. The site was the first in the nation’s history to be added to the list twice.
“Today, the EPA admits it ‘missed’ nearly 80 percent of the toxins in the original cleanup,” according to the film’s website.
An update on the investigation, which The Record ran in December and January of 2010 and 2011, hinted that the current outlook for residents may still be bleak.
“Ford has removed nearly five times the amount of pollution it hauled out in previous cleanups of its old dumpsite. But despite government assurances that the work will finally be done right, Ford may once again be allowed to leave contamination,” in the area, the paper said.
As of the end of last year, Ford claimed that since no records were kept of the dump locations throughout the 500-acre Superfund site, it is difficult to gauge the amount of paint and other waste left in the area, and where exactly it all is.
For Fink, he hopes Wednesday night’s film screening will help answer some of the mysteries behind this issue, and arm activists and residents with questions and concerns that need to be raised in the future.
“What does it mean when the EPA ‘cleans up’ a contaminated site? This was the first site to ever be relisted, and it might just be the canary in the coal mine,” Fink said.
“The only reason the investigation was opened back up on this was because the residents of the area were so vocal with their concerns. Where else has this happened that hasn’t been so loud?”
From the beginning, Fink says he could tell the story would reverberate with a national audience. The filmmakers say 74 million Americans live within four miles of a Superfund site.
“I think this film will have real significance for both its national audience when it debuts on HBO on July 18, and to the local audience who comes to see it screened in Mahwah Wednesday night.”
“It is the most complicated film I’ve worked on, and it sifts through the issue in a way that makes sense. I think if you want to understand what happened, or you want to know about the risks to your water supply, or you wonder whether this dumping happened in your back yard as well, you should see the film,” Fink said.
Residents who want to attend the Wednesday night showing, which is co-sponsored by HBO and The Record, can look forward to cocktails beforehand, and a Q&A session with Fink and his fellow filmmakers after the movie.
Record reporters who worked on the Toxic Legacy series are featured in the film.
The showing is Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Ramapo College’s Berrie Center. Attendees MUST RSVP to the event. Get more information about how to sign up here.