Monday, July 18, 2011

Uncle Sam’s Dioxin Cover-Up

Ford dump site in Ringwood, NJ (photo/Jan Barry)

Vietnam and New Jersey, despite the vast distance between them, share a deadly link. Both places, lushly beautiful this time of year, were poisoned by United States government actions regarding one of the most toxic chemicals, dioxin.

In Vietnam, dioxin was widely spread as a contaminant in forest-killing Agent Orange herbicides that the US government failed to warn Vietnamese and American soldiers could be deadly to their health. In New Jersey, where Agent Orange was manufactured at a Newark chemical plant and the herbicides were sprayed along power lines and elsewhere for years, the feds failed to warn Americans at home that their health could be endangered by exposure to a widespread substance in our daily environment.

A new documentary, Mann v. Ford, that opened on HBO television channels this week highlights the painful reality for a Garden State community that was poisoned despite government assurances that safety measures were in place to protect people's health from industrial pollution. In a stunningly symbolic scene, two leaders of the contaminated neighborhood walk along a path beside the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington on their way to the Capitol Building, their reflected figures weaving in and out among the long columns of names of soldiers who died in the war.

The film focuses on a lawsuit by residents of Ringwood, NJ who sued Ford Motor Company over cancer and other illnesses that beset many of their families after lead-based paint sludge and other industrial waste from a car-assembly plant was dumped near their homes. The dumping occurred in 1967-71, during the height of the war in Vietnam. Like soldiers in Vietnam, residents of the former iron mining community where the dumping occurred were long in the dark as to the hidden dangers of dioxin and other toxic substances.

Besides lead, arsenic, benzene, PCBs and other hazardous chemicals that EPA has determined were found in the Ringwood dump site area, the film shows environmental investigators for the residents’ lawyers testing for and finding dioxin in some homes and in the blood of some of the residents decades after the dumping occurred. Much is made by the attorneys how this can prove that residents were exposed to plumes of dioxin-laden air pollution when dump sites burned for weeks, spewing acrid smoke through the mountainside community.

Discussing why the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry hadn’t tested the Ringwood community for dioxin during initial investigations into potential health effects of the hazardous waste dumping, an environmental investigator says in the film: “There was a document that says you don’t have to sample for dioxin. That was about 1986 or ’87.”

This information about what wasn’t done properly and what was later found was never presented in court. The lawsuit against Ford was settled out-of-court, at the apparent direction of a state judge, shown in the film setting insurmountable requirements for presenting the health problems of more than 600 Ringwood residents and former residents.

It was not the first time the judicial system sidestepped holding an accounting of the government’s role in failing to protect the public from dioxin and other hazardous chemicals. A mass action lawsuit by Vietnam veterans in the 1980s against chemical companies that made Agent Orange for the US military was also settled out of court, under the direction of a federal judge.

Like the Ringwood residents, the Vietnam vets wanted to present evidence they and their lawyers had gathered. Instead, they were offered a few thousand dollars each to drop legal actions and go away. So the lid on health information the veterans sought to put on the record was lifted, not by lawyers or government actions, but by an angry high-ranking veteran.

Unraveling an Official Cover-Up

“Elmo R. Zumwalt 3d, son of the admiral who ordered the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and who was exposed to the defoliant himself, died of cancer today at his home. He was 42 years old,” The New York Times reported in August 1988. “In an article published in The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 24, 1986,” the obituary added, “the younger Mr. Zumwalt said: 'I am a lawyer and I don't think I could prove in court, by the weight of the existing scientific evidence, that Agent Orange is the cause of all the medical problems - nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems - reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children's severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is.’”

Stunned by his son’s death, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. investigated the available studies and concluded, in a comprehensive 1990 report to the Department of Veterans Affairs, that there actually was sufficient scientific evidence to link various cancers and birth defects with dioxin. But, he found, this information had been deliberately concealed by federal officials.

“Unfortunately, political interference in government sponsored studies associated with Agent orange has been the norm, not the exception. In fact, there appears to have been a systematic effort to suppress critical data or alter results to meet preconceived notions of what alleged scientific studies were meant to find,” Zumwalt stated, citing examples of various agencies manipulating data and suppressing information about health effects of dioxin exposure.

“The flawed scientific studies and manipulated conclusions are not only unduly denying justice to Vietnam veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange," Zumwalt said in a quote circulated in a US Veterans Dispatch report in November 1990. "They are now standing in the way of a full disclosure to the American people of the likely health effects of exposure to toxic dioxins."

Years before Zumwalt’s scathing report, skeptical officials in New Jersey created an Agent Orange study commission in the early 1980s which found that—contrary to federal government assertions—dioxin could be found in Vietnam veterans’ bodies years after the war. As reports of long-suppressed health studies about dioxin exposure piled up, Congress in the early 1990s mandated that the VA treat or pay compensation to Vietnam veterans for a number of cancers, other illnesses, and their children with spina bifida. The list of illnesses associated with dioxin exposure has since grown substantially, and includes many if not most of the illnesses that beset the Ringwood neighborhood nearly surrounded by Ford dump sites.

Another Smoking Gun

During the time that the younger Zumwalt was frustrated that “existing scientific evidence” wasn’t sufficient to prove in court what he knew had poisoned him in Vietnam, a group of federal officials was busy trying to cover up an environmental bombshell.

“In August 1987, [a} report, entitled ‘No Margin of Safety’ and published by Greenpeace, burst like a bomb on the pulp and paper industry and its regulators within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Evidence gleamed from thousands of pages of the EPA's own documents demonstrated that pulp mills were spewing dioxins into the air and water, creating … a public health emergency,” noted an article published in Greenpeace magazine in 1989.

“But that was only the beginning. Someone inside the American Paper Institute (API), the paper manufacturer's trade organization, saw the report and sent a collection of documents to Greenpeace. These documents substantiated [activists’] charges that senior EPA officials and the industries the agency was supposed to regulate were working together to limit public knowledge about the hazards of dioxin and a host of other dangerous chemicals. According to US District Judge Owen M. Panner, the documents revealed an agreement ‘between the EPA and the industry to suppress, modify or delay the results of the joint EPA/industry [dioxin] study or the manner in which they are publicly presented.’"

Twenty years later, an attorney for the Ringwood residents said in frustration in the documentary that it would be very difficult to prove that Ford was primarily responsible for the residents’ health problems. That may well be true. The US government was supposed to have been in charge of enforcing environmental protection laws, not outsourcing enforcement to industrial polluters. Yet, as the Greenpeace article warned, by the late 1980s it was becoming apparent from various health reports the EPA was sitting on that potentially dangerous levels of dioxin were being found in fish downstream from paper mills and in paper towels, coffee filters and baby diapers, among other common household products made with bleached wood pulp.

Other ways that dioxin can get into the environment, Greenpeace reported in 1989, include: “Municipal incinerators, for example, produce dioxins when they burn garbage containing chlorinated plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Dioxins are also unwanted by-products in the manufacture of chlorinated chemicals, such as Agent Orange and the wood preservative pentachlorophenol (PCP).”

The missing element in the Ringwood pollution story—which has toxic dumping counterparts in communities across America—is a Congressional hearing where facts are presented under oath. As details about EPA’s lax oversight of Ford’s handling of its hazardous waste cleanup responsibilities in Ringwood appeared in news articles in 2005, New Jersey’s Environmental Protection Commissioner requested a criminal investigation. It never happened. Why not?

Another, vital missing element is for a knowledgeable insider to come forth and, like Admiral Zumwalt did on Agent Orange, bang some bureaucratic heads together until they get the job of protecting the public from dioxin and other toxic substances and helping the injured done right.

For more information:

Jan Barry is featured in Mann v. Ford as a lead reporter for the Toxic Legacy series published by The Record (Bergen Co., NJ) that revealed the extent of industrial contamination and health problems in this case.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Toxic Trails

HBO flyer

Residents of a once-isolated mountain community in Ringwood, NJ have a bone-chilling tale to tell the rest of America. And HBO is offering its cable television services to help convey this story via a new documentary called Mann v. Ford.

Highlighting the community’s fight against a plague of illness and deaths they worry were caused by toxic waste dumped in the forest and abandoned iron mines around their homes, the film “follows members of New Jersey’s Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe in their five-year search for justice through a mass action lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company,” HBO stated in a promotion for the recent New York premiere at the Time Warner Center Theater. The film airs on the cable channel on Monday at 9 p.m.

During a discussion with the audience after the New York showing, Ringwood resident Roger DeGroat politely but firmly countered disparaging remarks about his Native American community that were cited in the film, such as in Ford internal documents about backwoods residents who lived adjacent to the company’s hazardous waste dumps in mine shafts and woodlands where local families hunted for deer and other wildlife: “I wonder what nationality has to do with dumping paint on people," said DeGroat, stirring an outpouring of applause. "I’d like to live to see the day they clean it up, all of it.”

Filmmakers Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink display an array of stunning scenery and harrowing scenes to bring viewers inside a close knit hamlet on a forested mountain ridge above the shimmering Wanaque Reservoir, New Jersey’s largest water supply source, and next to bucolic Ringwood State Park, where cancer, diabetes or other severe illnesses have stalked nearly every home. The residents’ ordeal started, they recall, when Ford bought the mining works around their homes where generations of family members were miners. From 1967 into the early 1970s, Ford contractors dumped thousands of tons of lead-based paint sludge mixed with benzene and other chemicals, as well as car parts from Ford’s massive assembly plant in neighboring Mahwah.

Others who think industrial waste doesn’t affect them should reconsider, film producer James Redford told an audience at a preview showing this week at Ramapo College, a mile downstream from the former Ford manufacturing plant in Mahwah. “To assume you are living in a safe environment may be a dangerous assumption,” he said. That’s a major message of this film, said Redford, son of movie star Robert Redford.

“I know what it means to not feel well,” said Redford, noting that he has had two liver transplants. “But I wasn’t lying in bed knowing I was there because of negligence from other people. To me,” he said of his interest in making this film,” the core issue is health, that people’s health could be compromised.”

As the film dramatically shows, the Ringwood residents’ health complaints, however, never made it before a jury. A state court judge raised seemingly insurmountable barriers to presenting the health problems of more than 600 people and the potential side effects of hazardous waste they were exposed to. And just then, the national economy tanked and Ford’s future as a viable vehicle maker looked increasingly shaky. The residents’ gold-star list of lawyers headed by The Cochran Firm urged accepting a $11 million settlement offer before Ford went bankrupt. The municipality of Ringwood reportedly paid an additional $1.5 million for its role in turning part of Ford’s dumping grounds into a municipal landfill operation.

What makes this story more than another American tragedy to be mined for how clueless to our own welfare we often can be is that the Upper Ringwood Neighborhood Action Association led by Wayne Mann, Vivian Milligan, Jay Van Dunk and others refused to accept defeat and successfully pressed the US Environmental Protection Agency to overturn a previous decision to accept Ford’s assertion that the worst of the toxic waste had been removed. This led to Ford removing several times the amount of tainted soil and paint waste as it dug up initially, including waste with elevated levels of lead that were buried in residents’ yards and an unpaved driveway where children played.

“While Ford admits dumping in Upper Ringwood, their lawyers insist it was legal at the time. The EPA placed Ringwood on the Federal Superfund List in the 1980s. Under EPA supervision, the site was officially ‘cleaned-up’ by Ford and taken off the Federal Superfund List in the 1990s, but most of the toxic waste remained. In 2006, the residents of Upper Ringwood made history when their community became the first site in the country ever returned to the Superfund List. Today, the EPA admits it ‘missed’ nearly 80% of the toxins in the original cleanup,” the HBO website notes. The film notes that Ford representatives declined to be interviewed.

Behind the scenes, Ford and EPA are still sparring with the Upper Ringwood community over whether or not to remove untold tons of hazardous waste that was dumped and bulldozed into deep mine pits just yards away from residents’ homes and mountain streams that flow to the nearby Wanaque Reservoir, which provides drinking water to some two million New Jersey residents.

“I hope the film is an inspiration,” director Maro Chermayeff told the Ramapo College audience, which included many residents of the Upper Ringwood community and supporters from neighboring towns where tons of Ford paint waste was also dumped, and in some cases was later removed and in other places is still there next to water supply streams. ”You can speak out. You can be heard. You can get out and help other people. I think you guys did an amazing job of banding together.”

“This community made history,” added director Micah Fink.

The Ringwood residents’ health issues and the extent of industrial contamination in and around their community were initially documented in a 2005 series of newspaper articles, accompanied by an extensively researched website, titled “Toxic Legacy” published by The Record of Bergen County, NJ. I was a reporter with the investigative team that did that project. Adding a far more visual rendering of this story, this documentary adroitly weaves on-the-scene reporting and follow up commentary by fellow Record reporter Barbara Williams and myself.

Going beyond the newspaper accounts, the filmmakers present haunting snippets, for instance, from 8mm home movies made by Milligan’s father that showed local children playing amid Ford contractors’ dump site equipment and paint sludge slurry while community adults scavenged through the hazardous landfills for saleable auto parts.

In more recent scenes filmed for the documentary, community residents talk about how friends and relatives who lived amid the expanding landfills began to die of cancer and other diseases at younger ages. Health investigators hired by the lawyers are shown discussing with residents that many of their health problems are known to be potentially caused by exposure to hazardous industrial substances such as PCBs, lead, arsenic and dioxin, a highly toxic impurity that can be released into the environment by burning many common chemicals. As the film shows, Ford’s dump sites in two of the mines burned for weeks, spewing thick smoke through the community.

“I like the fact that people are getting to see some of the hardships that we went through,” Vivian Milligan told a Record reporter after the showing at Ramapo College. Wayne Mann, a Ringwood State Park worker who led the community through the lawsuit battle with Ford, said watching the film “hurt because it was my family.” In a telling scene in the film, he shows a filmmaker a wall in his hideaway office full of photos and mementos of family members and friends who died young.

A sobering note at the end of the film states:
“During the five years spent making this film, thirty members of the community died, without ever knowing the outcome of the case.

“A year after the case was settled, Ford posted profits of $2.7 billion.

“In 2010, Ford posted profits of $6.6 Billion,
Its largest profit in 11 years.

“As of 2011, 74 million people in The United States live within four miles of a Superfund site.”

For more information:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sailing for Peace

Golden Rule in June 1958 (Honolulu Star-Bulletin photo)

Beyond the July 4th fireworks celebrating historic battles against the British empire, American history includes many other memorable moments when courageous acts of conscience stirred the nation to steer a peaceful tack against the winds of war. One of those moments was in the spring of 1958 when a retired Navy captain, Albert Bigelow, set off in a small sailboat to nonviolently challenge the United States military use of the South Pacific as a nuclear weapons testing zone.

Concerns about radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests and the possibility of nuclear war worried many people around the world. When authorities stopped the “Golden Rule” as it sailed out of Hawaii and arrested Bigelow and his peacenik crew, a tsunami of antinuclear testing protests erupted across America. “Later that year, the beleaguered U.S. government agreed to a nuclear testing moratorium,” historian Lawrence S. Wittner recently noted in an article in Z magazine on the impact of what he called the “legendary” sailboat.

Bigelow—a World War II veteran who died in 1993 at age 87—continued protesting preparations for waging nuclear war and what he saw as other outrages, joining the Freedom Riders in 1961 on another history-changing journey. The “Golden Rule,” meanwhile, sailed off into oblivion until it was dredged up last year from the bottom of Humboldt Bay in northern California.

Shipyard owner Leroy Zerlang was torn between cutting up the salvaged wreck or preserving it in a museum, Wittner wrote. Now a crew of history-minded volunteers is working to restore the 30-foot wooden ketch and sail her under the flag of Veterans For Peace. "She's going to be the peace boat out to confront militarism and needless war," project coordinator Fredy Champagne recently told The Sacramento Bee.

“It was the Golden Rule's peace mission that captivated Champagne,” noted Bee correspondent Jane Braxton Little. “After a year of combat in Vietnam, he retreated to the hills of Humboldt County, living as a recluse with post-traumatic stress disorder. One morning in 1988, he suddenly decided to build a hospital in Vietnam.

“Since then Champagne has organized 23 teams of veterans to build dozens of medical facilities, schools and homes in Vietnam. His ‘people-to-people diplomacy’ campaign also includes driving the Kosovo Peace Bus, which held ‘teach-ins’ in major U.S. cities; building water systems in Iraq; and organizing a 2000 trip to Cuba for the Lost Coast Pirates Little League team.

"”Waging peace has saved my life,’ said Champagne.”

Champagne and other members of the Golden Rule Project of Veterans For Peace set a goal of raising $50,000 for repairs, including replacing the deck and cabin. They plan to launch the ship by next summer to tour U.S. waterways to promote the peace group’s “goals of nuclear disarmament, abolishment of war,” Champagne wrote in a report in the current issue of the Veterans For Peace Newsletter.

The Golden Rule Project organizers’ vision and enthusiasm is contagious, Grandmothers for Peace International’s director, Lorraine Krofchok, stated in that organization’s spring 2011 newsletter.

“This little ketch could be used to educate ‘the future’ and how peace is the only alternative to constant war and aggression,” Krofchok wrote after visiting the storied sailboat in dry dock in Fairhaven, California. “Our oceans are bombarded with ‘war games.’ The Golden Rule could become a lead boat in a Flotilla of Peace.”

For more information: