The government's latest findings are that a plague of illnesses among Upper Ringwood residents may well be connected to their living near Ford Motor Co.'s leftover toxic waste dump.
But Ford says such a conclusion is unfounded, considering all the other factors, such as lifestyle, that could have affected residents' health.
And the residents' lawyers are balking at the official conclusion that residents should be tested further at government expense. They say their own, more extensive tests will do just fine.
Meanwhile, it's been three years since officials started looking at the health effects of the toxic waste dump, and amid all of the continuing official and legal pronouncements, there's still no definitive answer on whether the illness and contamination are linked.
The most solid statement to date came this month in a federal study that declared the site a public health hazard. The report, by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and state health officials, found the residents' exposure to lead, arsenic and other contaminants may be linked to a host of respiratory illnesses, neurological disorders, heart disease, skin rashes, eye irritation, anemia and diabetes.
Health assessment by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Upper Ringwood residents near the Ford toxic waste dump suffer from:
Ford's formal response is that the residents' health problems aren't caused by the waste: There are "significant health factors in the population that have nothing to do with waste-disposal practices. Poor nutrition, housing conditions, exposure to lead-based paint in the home and socioeconomic issues may play a major role in potential health issues."
The federal report was compiled using test results from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing Ford's fifth cleanup of the area; from cancer and lead-poisoning statistics and from group discussions with the residents.
Ford contractors dumped tons of liquid sludge, solvents and industrial debris throughout the former mining area nearly 40 years ago. The waste contains a brew of toxins, including volatile metals. Chunks of dried sludge, some rubbery in texture and smelling strongly of chemicals despite the passage of time, still can be seen on wooded hillsides and near children's play areas.
Because some of the waste is in rugged terrain, Ford said the "opportunities for human exposure to those materials were limited historically, and there are virtually no opportunities today."
However, many residents of the rural community are Ramapough Mountain Indians, who hunt, fish and farm as a way of life. Historically, they have traveled through the thick woods often and easily. In fact, that lifestyle prompted health officials to recommend testing plants and animals. Federal and state environmental workers are expected to begin that testing in the fall, and Rep. Scott Garrett, R-Wantage, has asked that the testing go a step further and include insects ingested by game animals.
As for the recommendation that residents undergo testing, the dissent is coming from advocates for the residents.
Kevin Madonna, a member of an A-team of lawyers representing the residents in a suit against Ford for personal injuries and property damage, said residents began undergoing medical testing last weekend -- at the attorneys' expense -- that is much more extensive than the government would have recommended.
"The state could have tested them for 23 years," Madonna said. "Now that we're doing it, they're stepping in and saying they want to do it. We're not going to put the residents through multiple testing; it doesn't make sense. And what are they going to do once they find something?"
Ford's response rejected the report to the point that it called on the federal agency to withdraw it. The auto giant said the assessment "contains serious flaws" and that assumptions made about the residents' exposure to the waste is "unsupported by either facts or common sense."
Both the study and Ford point out that one of two cases of lead poisoning found in children was traced to lead-based paint inside the home. Ford questioned whether the other case might also be from lead within the house.
Health officials are reviewing all the comments, and will issue a final report that will include the responses in a few months.
"If there are some scientific facts that may affect our conclusion, we'll change it, but it would have to be something that we can validate," said Arthur Block, a representative from the New York region of the toxic substances agency.