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 Post subject: Ringwood: Other areas wrestle with Ringwood's toxic sludge
PostPosted: Mon Jan 22, 2007 12:12 pm 
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Location: Above the Sterling Hill Mine
Other areas wrestle with Ringwood's toxic sludge
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Sunday, January 7, 2007


RELATED LINKS: Two peoples linked by polluted lands

To an outsider, two things stand out about this rural town 30 miles southwest of Detroit.

There are the goats and chickens in the yards -- signs that country ways haven't been obliterated by the Motor City's spreading suburbs.

And there is "The Mountain."

The Carleton Farms landfill soars 17 stories above the surrounding ranch homes and farmhouses in this pancake-flat region. Here, decomposing trash exhales puffs of steam and, to the outrage of neighbors, oozes human sewage. On the summit, you can see Detroit's hazy skyline miles away.

This is the end of the line for most of the toxic paint sludge dug from a Superfund site in Upper Ringwood.

Here, what seems like victory in Ringwood -- the removal of 20,000 tons of hazardous waste -- is a headache for those stuck with our toxic trash. Nothing against New Jersey, folks here say, but they'd rather do without its pollution.

"I don't want anybody's garbage, you know," said Christy Anderson, a neighbor who has sued the landfill over odor complaints. "Take care of it yourself."

Still, there's a certain irony to the sludge's final journey.

More than 40 years ago, the Ford Motor Co.'s massive Mahwah assembly plant spat out the sludge -- the dried remnants of paint, solvents and other chemicals -- in the course of churning out 6 million Galaxies, LTDs and other vehicles. Ford dumped much of the waste in a poorly run landfill in Ringwood. The neighbors, a Native American community known as the Ramapoughs, blame the sludge for high asthma rates, cancers and other health problems.

Now, the waste pulled out of Ringwood is shipped to a treatment plant southwest of Detroit a few miles from where Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T's a century ago.

After treatment, most of the waste ends up buried at Carleton Farms. But, in a surreal coda to the Ramapoughs' fight, the most hazardous of the sludge travels on to rural Ontario -- where it is dumped in a landfill near another native community that blames local pollution for its ills.

"We're not happy about it," said Ron Plain, an environmental activist on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve in Sarnia, Ontario. "Whether it's the U.S. government or a state or a province of Canada, they always seem to find a way to dump in somebody else's back yard."

Ford's contractors have spent the past two years cleaning up the site in Upper Ringwood. Tests found high levels of heavy metals such as lead, chromium and arsenic in the sludge, as well as volatile organic compounds such as xylene and ethyl benzene. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been linked to lung cancer, skin disorders and brain, liver and kidney damage.

Last May, federal regulators declared the site a "public health hazard." A week and a half ago, the EPA revealed that high levels of lead had been found in some animals and plants in the area. In addition, attorneys for the residents say dioxin, which is linked to cancer and other serious illness, has been found in attic dust in some homes

About 3,400 tons of material dug from Ringwood has been deemed non-hazardous and dumped in a traditional solid waste landfill in western Pennsylvania. The rest -- sludge, tainted soil and junked auto parts -- is sent 600 miles to Michigan by road and rail -- to industry's version of detox.

Ties to auto industry

A 20-foot-high dirt berm topped with a barricade of evergreens rings EQ Michigan Waste Disposal's complex in Van Buren Township. The plant is a featureless box, about four stories tall and the color of a manila folder. Aside from a stream of dump trucks along the service road outside, you'd never know this was a tomb for toxic mistakes.

The plant processed 210,000 tons of chemicals last year. The landfill behind it is one of only eight dumps in the nation licensed to bury PCBs, the carcinogenic chemicals banned in the 1970s.

Ford and General Motors, whose nearby auto plants generate rivers of waste oil, paint solvents and other castoffs, are top clients. So are toxic waste cleanup sites around the eastern U.S., according to a township official.

Aside from an occasional chemical odor, EQ rarely makes itself known, people say. On nearby Ayres Avenue, a dirt lane lined with modest homes, "For Sale" signs have been proliferating lately. But that's got more to do with the plummeting auto industry than fears about toxic waste.

Still, no one's thrilled about what rolls through EQ's gates. "It's a known fact that they take some of the most toxic stuff around," said John Vaprezsan, the assistant pastor at Metro Baptist Church, one of the plant's closest neighbors. "We see deer wandering in and out of there all the time, but we always joke that there's no way we'd take one -- we know what they're eating."

Ford and EQ share a long history.

A Detroit contractor founded the business that would become The Environmental Quality Co. in 1948, leasing Ford land to dump waste for the automaker. According to Andy Winnie, a resident who has fought dumping at EQ, Ford owned the land beneath the landfill and treatment plant until the late 1990s, when it gave the property to the waste company amid complaints about the PCB dumping.

Ford has remained a steady customer with its shipments from Ringwood. Contamination from Ford's former plant in Mahwah also ended up in nearby Hillburn, N.Y. That sludge is being shipped to EQ, too.

"They're Ford's dumping ground," Winnie said.

Ford refused to allow The Record into EQ's treatment plant to witness how the waste is handled. In written comments, the automaker outlined a two-step process that it says renders paint sludge safe to bury in a landfill.

Inside the plant, sludge is poured into one of several 45,000-gallon tanks and mixed with an "oxidizing agent" -- typically bleach -- to break down organic pollutants. Afterwards, a "stabilizing agent," such as Portland cement, lime or cement kiln dust, is added to harden the mixture.

The goal is to destroy contaminants or at least "lock them in" so they can't leak out of a landfill, said Michael Busse, an inspector who monitors the plant for Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality.

The result is a chunk of waste the consistency of weak cement. It undergoes a "penetration test" to ensure the desired thickness, as well as a chemical analysis to ensure it meets state and federal disposal standards.

The Van Buren plant has had a relatively clean record in recent years, state and local officials said. But its parent company hasn't fared as well. In August 2005, an explosion at an EQ treatment plant in nearby Romulus, Mich., leveled the building. Then, last October, a blast at a chemical storage plant in North Carolina forced thousands to flee.

Michigan officials say both incidents are under investigation. The blasts, meanwhile, have rattled neighbors.

The toxic waste from Ringwood is "another round of outrage," said Brad van Guilder, a community organizer with the Ecology Center, a local environmental group.

Even after treatment, about a third of the sludge remains too contaminated -- too "hot" -- for disposal even in EQ's hazardous waste landfill. These loads are sent to Canada.

The remainder -- 11,500 tons so far -- is clean enough that EQ doesn't want to waste expensive space in its own toxic landfill. So the waste is sent on to one of the busiest dumps in North America.

'The Mountain'

A local official calls Carleton Farms "The Mountain," and the name fits. Everything about the landfill screams "big." Hundreds of tractor-trailers haul 8,500 tons of trash to the site every day. The dump holds 85 million cubic yards of waste, enough to fill Giants Stadium 35 times over.

Engineers expect Carleton Farms to one day top 100 million cubic yards and rise 300 feet into the sky -- a giant mound of everything from household garbage to treated industrial waste.

The top of the heap here is a rutted plain of broken concrete, tire shreds and black garbage bags. Winds whip across the trash. Giant "tippers" lift tractor-trailers as if they were Fisher-Price toys, letting the trash cascade out.

On the roads around the landfill, some spots smell of rotting waste. The peak smells a lot like a new car: It's covered with a half-foot of shredded auto cushions each day to keep trash from blowing around.

Ford's sludge may be an environmental disaster in Ringwood, but Carleton Farms considers it fair game as long as the treated waste meets state and federal disposal standards.

"If you think about what your average resident throws out -- the used motor oil, oven cleaners -- there's a potential they're throwing out far more dangerous material," said Brian Ezyk, a Carleton Farms' engineer.

Buried deep in the landfill, away from weathering winds or rain, the concrete-encased sludge isn't likely to change, Ezyk said.

"If it's concrete, it's going to be a chunk of concrete," he said. "It's going to sit there, essentially forever."

Modern landfills are built to keep their nasty contents contained, he said. A 10-foot layer of clay and plastic and geosynthetic liners surround Carleton Farms. Fifty gas wells suck methane, the product of all that decomposing trash, from the pile, and the company is preparing to expand the system to get a better handle on odor concerns.

"I think if everybody could come out here and visit and see how hard people work, how much they try to protect the environment, people would feel differently," Ezyk said.

Local residents aren't impressed. Dozens have joined a lawsuit in recent months, complaining of noise, dust, traffic and nauseating odors. "A mixture of stale vomit and probably barnyard manure," is how William Roche, who lives near the dump, describes the smell.

More like rotting meat or a pig farm, said Christy Anderson. She lives five miles away, but the stifling stench wakes her "from a dead sleep" some nights. She blames the landfill for her three sons' asthma attacks.

Neighbors here are already incensed about imported trash: Toronto sends much of its municipal waste here and, until August, was sending virtually all of its treated sewage as well. That stopped soon after sewage began bubbling up out of cracks in the landfill.

Van Guilder, the environmental activist, questioned the safety of burying waste from Ringwood's Superfund site at a landfill designed for household trash. The landfill's liners may work today, he said, but what about in 30 years, or 50?

"It's highly toxic stuff, and we just hope it's been treated properly," he said. "Instead of dealing with it, are you just putting it off for another generation or two?"


Reprinted with permission from The Record,

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