Ford and Ringwood residents reach a tenative deal over dumping

Amount of the settlement not revealed

Attorneys for Upper Ringwood residents have reached a tentative settlement with Ford Motor Co. in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the auto giant for dumping toxic waste in the neighborhood more than four decades ago, according to a document obtained by The Record. Terms of the settlement were not released by the attorneys, and residents said on Friday they have not been told any details.But a letter from their lawyers sent to state Superior Court Judge Jonathan Harris in Bergen County this week asked for a four-week stay in court proceedings to finish the “tentative global settlement” and get the signatures of all the plaintiffs.

“I don’t know what the dollar amount is, but our attorneys took a risk representing us, so what they get us – so be it,” resident Vivian Milligan said as she dressed to attend a wake for another community member. “This wasn’t about the money. It’s about what Ford did to us.” The deal will include an agreement with Ringwood, which was also named in the suit for allowing Ford to dump. But borough officials, like all the attorneys involved with the suit, declined to talk specifics.

“I can’t talk about the amount, but the borough should have full coverage for the settlement from our insurance carriers,” said Mayor Walter Davison. The attorneys’ letter, dated April 15, was sent by Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo P.C., part of a self-described A-Team of lawyers that represents the residents. It is unclear how much money the attorneys will receive from the settlement.

The New York City-based firm teamed up with Robert Kennedy Jr.’s New York practice, The Cochran Firm based in Alabama and the community’s original lawyers, Catalano & Plache of Washington, D.C., to force Ford to pay for health problems and property damages the residents’ blame on the contamination. The suit didn’t ask for a specific amount but at the time it was filed, attorneys were talking about seeking $2 million per plaintiff.

Matthew Plache, who has represented the residents for over five years, would only offer, “We’re pleased that this community has benefited from the focus and attention of so many in our efforts to bring them justice.” Cancer, asthma, and skin rashes plague the mountain neighborhood and many say it is from walking, playing and inhaling the toxins. As children, they rubbed the multi-colored sludge on their faces, slid down hillsides of it, and squished it between their fingers. More than 600 residents, including hundreds of members of the state-recognized Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe, signed on to sue Ford.

Ford’s stance has been there is no way to prove the waste caused the illnesses. The company said much of the damage could be from lifestyle choices such as smoking. For a while, community advocates talked about having Ford pay to move everyone out of the neighborhood. But some, anchored to the land by generations of tradition, said they wouldn’t move. Then, as the economy sagged and Ford’s financial future looked shaky, a simple payout became more likely, said sources knowledgeable about the case but who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A mass tort lawsuit is normally settled with a neutral party brought in to decide how much each plaintiff gets. Those who have lived in the community longer and have more serious health ailments will most likely get a larger amount than those who lived in the neighborhood briefly. To many residents, a settlement is vindication. “This shows we’re not crazy, it wasn’t all in our minds: Ford poisoned us,” Milligan said. The suit, filed in January 2006, bounced back and forth between state and federal court before ending in state court, and depositions were underway. But because every plaintiff had to be deposed, it appeared the suit would drag on for years.

Ford spokesman Jon Holt confirmed that “settlement discussions are underway” but declined to talk about the case. Ford dumped swaths of lead-based paint sludge, solvents, and other industrial trash over acres of woodlands in the Upper Ringwood neighborhood and nearby Ringwood State Park. The company has been cleaning the area steadily since 2004 and, periodically before that when waste was discovered going back to the 1980’s.

The area was listed as a federal Superfund cleanup site until 1994 when the federal Environmental Protection Agency, relying on Ford’s assurances of an adequate cleanup, de-listed it. Subsequent resident complaints about mysterious illnesses and remaining piles of visible pollution led to intervention by environmental groups and state and federal lawmakers. The EPA, conceding it erred in its de-listing of the site, has re-listed it as a Superfund site. Since 2004, Ford has removed an additional 35,000 tons of toxic waste. The Record has documented the pollution case in its continuing Toxic Legacy series, first published in 2004.

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