New Jersey sues Ford over mining that tainted tribal land

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Shawn LaTourette, New Jersey's environmental protection commissioner, right, holds the hand of Angel Stefancik, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape, after at a press conference in Ringwood, N.J., on Thursday, June 16, 2022, at which New Jersey officials announced litigation against Ford Motor Company, alleging the company contaminated tribal land by dumping paint sludge and other pollutants into a former iron mine. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

RINGWOOD, N.J. – New Jersey officials sued Ford Motor Co. on Thursday, alleging that the automaker contaminated the ancestral homeland of a Native American tribe by dumping paint sludge and other pollutants into a former mine.

The action in state court seeks unspecified damages to restore the land, and to compensate the state and local communities for losses they sustained when natural resources were damaged.

The suit accuses Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford of dumping contaminants at the former Ringwood Mine site, a 500-acre site that encompasses the homelands of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a tribe formally recognized by the state.

Tribe members attended Thursday's news conference and spoke of years of illnesses and deaths they attribute to contamination of their land.

“Can you promise my community a future?” tribe member Angel Stefancik asked New Jersey officials during the news conference. “I've lived on contaminated land my whole life. I want the kind of land where my ancestors grew up, where you can walk barefoot. I want my rabbits, my toads, fruit trees.

“I lost my grandmother to cancer,” she said. “I'm 22 and I have a long list of chronic conditions. It's so hard living in that area, but this is my land. I was born there and I will die there.”

The state’s lawsuit alleges that Ford purchased Ringwood Mines in 1965 to use it as a landfill where it could dispose of hazardous waste generated by its auto assembly plant in Mahwah, which was one of the largest auto assembly plants in the U.S.

Between 1967 and 1974, the lawsuit asserts, Ford disposed thousands of tons of toxic paint sludge in the forests and on the grounds within the Ringwood Mines, as well as in its abandoned mineshafts and pits. Other pollutants were dumped there, as well, the state said.

Subsequently, Ford either donated or sold all of its contaminated Ringwood Mines properties while fully aware of — but without disclosing — that those properties were contaminated with hazardous and toxic wastes, according to the lawsuit.

The state did not disclose a specific amount in damages that it is seeking.

Ford said it had just received the lawsuit and could not comment in detail.

But it did issue a statement that said, “Ford takes its environmental responsibility seriously and has shown that through our actions to address issues in Upper Ringwood. We understand this has affected the community and have worked cooperatively with the Borough of Ringwood, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency while implementing the remediation plan stipulated by the EPA."

Chief Vincent Mann, of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, said his 200-member community has suffered for years from illness and death that they all believe is traceable to dumping at the mine site.

“People died of cancer, of rare diseases, birth defects because of this.” he said. “Every time someone calls late at night, you think, ‘Has someone else died?’”

State officials noted that Ford agreed to pay New Jersey $2.1 million to cover its past costs for cleanup and disposal of the paint sludge and other contaminants within Ringwood Mines as part of a state-federal settlement in 2019.

Thursday's litigation involves compensation for the damage to and lost use of natural resources.

“Today we hold Ford accountable for natural resource damages, for knowingly polluting some of the state’s most precious environmental assets, then walking away without disclosing the toxic mess they had made or attempting to mitigate the harm,” said Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin.


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