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Ford, the feds, the mob: Making a wasteland

By JAN BARRY, MARY JO LAYTON, ALEX NUSSBAUM, TOM TRONCONE, LINDY WASHBURN, BARBARA WILLIAMS and THOMAS E. FRANKLIN, Wire Services

A slab of bright blue lies beside a mountain stream above the Wanaque Reservoir. It’s a sporty color, maybe the “Diamond Blue” that Ford sprayed on Galaxies in the late 1960s. It hardened like lava where it was dumped more than a generation ago.

When running high, the stream rinses over the slab and down the mountain, through marshes and past beaver dams, toward the reservoir.

It’s everywhere, this paint.

Chunks of it jut from the driveway of a house in Ringwood where a child got lead poisoning. It is so toxic he and his mom have moved out.

Piles of it, weathered and gray and wrinkled like an elephant’s skin, cling to a hillside. Nearby is the home of a boy who died of a rare tumor.

On the other side of the hill a spring-fed stream once ran clear and fresh. For generations, it quenched the thirst of the mountain’s residents, the Ramapoughs. Now the water is bright orange and laced with cancer-causing benzene.

Just upstream from Mahwah, a ridge of waste paint longer than a football field slowly leaches arsenic, lead and other heavy metals into the Ramapo River.

It is in countless other places – in landfills, on farms, along hiking trails in the woodlands that sweep across the northern edge of New Jersey and form the region’s important watersheds.

The paint sludge is from the Ford Motor Co.’s factory in Mahwah, once the largest auto assembly plant in the nation. Before closing in 1980, the behemoth plant spat out 6 million vehicles and an ocean of contaminants – including enough paint sludge to fill two of the three tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel.