US: EPA probing why arsenic found at toxic cleanup site

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the source of arsenic found at a cleanup site in Upper Ringwood where a Ford Motor Co. contractor recently removed tons of paint sludge.

The arsenic -- which occurs naturally at low levels in the area -- was found beneath the recent paint-sludge excavations, at levels as much as double the state safety standard for soil.

A Ford spokesman said Monday that the company believes the arsenic is a byproduct of iron mining in the area that took place before Ford dumped paint sludge and other industrial waste there in the late 1960s.

"We believe it's from the mine tailings from the mining operations, because we haven't seen that level of arsenic in paint-sludge samples," Jon Holt, a Ford spokesman, said Monday.

Joe Gowers, the EPA case manager for Ringwood, said he ordered Ford to do additional tests to determine the source of the arsenic. Two preliminary tests of nearby mine-tailing deposits found higher levels of arsenic, he said.

"Our investigation has been focused on what Ford Motor Co. dumped out there. Now we're looking at the possibility we have another source of contamination," said Gowers.

Arsenic is a known carcinogen and linked to increased risk of lung, liver, kidney, urinary, bladder and skin cancer, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. It can occur naturally in conjunction with iron ore; it is also found in automotive paint.

Whatever its source, the elevated arsenic readings stand to cloud the picture of contamination in this remote enclave in northern Passaic County, where residents recently sued Ford for fraud and negligence over industrial pollution the company dumped there a generation ago.

Potentially, if Ford's waste is not the source of the arsenic, it could portend a hidden threat to dozens of Highlands communities in New Jersey and New York that hosted iron mining operations.

An EPA spokesman, Ben Barry, said Monday that the agency doesn't have enough information to determine "if this is a pervasive problem ... or whether this is something unique to Ringwood."

Ford's consultants told the EPA they did not find arsenic at high levels in paint sludge, but did find it amid mine tailings at the bottom of an excavation pit off the north end of Peters Mine Road.

Other sources, though, have found arsenic associated with paint sludge in Ringwood in heavier concentrations than those recorded by Ford. Arsenic, along with lead, chromium and solvents, was listed by the EPA in 1987 as a pollutant in paint sludge in Upper Ringwood.

Tests conducted by the Edison Wetlands Association, an environmental watchdog that has been supportive of contamination claims leveled by the residents, last year found arsenic in paint sludge samples at nearly seven times the state standard.

Tests commissioned by The Record for the newspaper's October 2005 Toxic Legacy report found arsenic in two paint sludge samples at levels even higher than that.

Gowers and other EPA officials plan to discuss the latest findings with local officials and residents at a public meeting Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Borough Hall.

But advocates for Upper Ringwood residents are dubious about the information provided by Ford. "If they think this is a result of mine tailings, let them prove it," said Robert Spiegel of Edison Wetlands.

He added that testing for arsenic should be done in other areas where iron mining took place.

"We're very skeptical of the whole thing -- that it's from the mining," said Matthew Plache, one of the attorneys representing the residents in their suit against Ford. "But we'll have to get to the bottom of it."

Ford's former dump in Ringwood sits a mile upstream from the Wanaque Reservoir, which serves millions of New Jersey residents.

Michael Barnes, the chief engineer for North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, which operates the reservoir system, said Monday that the water supply doesn't have an arsenic problem.

Barnes said natural arsenic levels in the rock in the reservoir watershed are very low. He said the filtration process at the water treatment plant, however, concentrates arsenic particles in the leftover residue. That waste material, he said, is very carefully handled.

"We don't have arsenic in our finished water. We virtually don't have it in our raw water," Barnes said.

State DEP spokesman Fred Mumford said tests of residential wells have found elevated levels of arsenic in several cases. But according to a DEP report on well test results from 2002-2003, none of the identified wells was near Ringwood.

More than 700 residents and former residents of Upper Ringwood sued Ford last month, alleging personal injury and property damage from Ford's waste.

A Ford subsidiary bought a roughly 900-acre tract from a mining company in 1965 and then used the land as a dump site. Tons of paint sludge still remain in old mines and scattered across the wooded area despite a federally supervised cleanup under the Superfund program.

Ford cleanup crews have been back working to remove contaminants from the site for more than a year.

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