A stone’s throw from the Ramapo River, a cheerful crowd of Native Americans and local supporters gathered Sunday to plant a medicine garden on a patch of cleared ground in Torne Valley where Ford Motor Company recently removed tons of toxic paint sludge.
The traffic roar on the nearby New York State Thruway evaporated as Native American drums and songs arose as though from the distant past to accompany garden dedication ceremonies, including sharing pinches of tobacco sprinkled into a fire and the planting of plugs of Sweet Grass. The roughly half-acre site in a former sand and gravel quarry is laid out for growing Sweet Grass and Sage, used for basketry and smudging, as well as “healing herbs beneficial for cancer patients,” according to the invitation.
Two turkey vultures circled overhead, looking for road kill along the highway and railroad corridor that cuts through the once bucolic gap in the Ramapo Mountains. One speaker noted with a chuckle that vultures are symbols of recycling.
The Healing of the Earth Ceremony marked a long-haul, grassroots effort by local residents and environmental activists to get Ford to remove the lead and chemical solvents-tainted waste, which was trucked from Ford’s Mahwah assembly plant and dumped along riverbanks in the 1960s. The buried debris in this field was next to a well that provides drinking water to much of the area around Suffern, NY. Further downstream are wells serving Mahwah and other towns in New Jersey.
“Today, with this healing ceremony, it’s a tipping point” toward protecting the environment in the bistate Ramapo River watershed, said Christopher St. Lawrence, the Town of Ramapo Supervisor, whose municipal government successfully pressed for clean up work that New York state officials let slide for decades despite repeated calls from area officials.
“This was ground zero for the buried lead paint,” said Chuck Stead, a Ramapo College adjunct professor and an environmental educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County. As a result of work that he and his students did over several years in mapping buried debris locations and filing reports with local and state agencies, Ford contractors last year removed 42,000 tons of tainted soil and hazardous waste from the Ramapo River well field parcel.
Stead lauded the Detroit-based auto company for eventually taking that action, planting dozens of native trees on the well field tract and paying for a sturdy deer-resistant fence around the medicine garden plot. But each of these steps, he noted, required persistent discussions and negotiations.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officials are now overseeing a similar remediation plan for Ford to excavate and remove more toxic waste along Torne Brook, a nearby tributary of the Ramapo River.
Dwaine Perry, chief of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation, who lives in the adjacent village of Hillburn, NY, thanked a number of the people at the ceremony for their combined efforts. “The one message that comes through is persistence, persistence, persistence pays off,” said Perry. He added that Ford’s work on this site “hopefully is the beginning of corporate decency” on environmental issues nationally.
“Be proud that you live in a town that supports you,” said Vivian Milligan, a leader of the Ramapough community in Ringwood, NJ, where another Ford dump site is partially cleaned up. “Hopefully, some day we will have a garden in Ringwood.”
St. Lawrence, whose sprawling Rockland County town stretches along the border with New Jersey within miles of Ringwood, added in his remarks: “We need to all come together and work on Ringwood.”