July 28, 2008

Waiting, and Dying ; Neighbors Fear They Won’t Survive Legal Fight With Ford


Two-and-a-half years after they filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Ford Motor Co., Upper Ringwood residents are steeling themselves for a long battle one that some believe they won't survive.

"I'll be dead before I get any money," said Mickey Van Dunk, 37. He's had 17 surgeries to treat a rare autoimmune disorder that's left his face heavily scarred.

Van Dunk and his neighbors many of them members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe blame Ford's dumping of industrial waste in Ringwood 40 years ago for an ocean of misery: multiple cases of cancer, asthma and other sicknesses, and a neighborhood that's a Superfund site.

Since they filed their lawsuit, residents say more have become ill. Several have died of cancer, a grandfather developed throat cancer, a 12-year-old girl had surgery to remove a tumor and her 7- year-old cousin was hospitalized for unexplained nosebleeds. This is in addition to a litany of illnesses and deaths claimed in their suit, which could be the largest environmental lawsuit ever in New Jersey.

"We have our family reunions at funeral homes," said Vivian Milligan, a community leader. She says she's tallied two dozen deaths since the auto giant was sued in 2006.

Ford has denied that any sickness on the mountain is the result of exposure to its industrial waste. The company maintains it legally dumped paint waste and other castoffs from its now defunct Mahwah plant in a Ringwood landfill. Paint sludge was found on just 5 percent of the 500-acre site, Ford has said.

Ford attorney Alan E. Kraus, who represented the tobacco industry in New Jersey as part of the national multibillion-dollar settlement, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Many residents fear the litigation is being dragged out intentionally so there will be fewer plaintiffs and a smaller payout.

"People will get tired of waiting and they'll take less," Paul Eugene Van Dunk said from his wheelchair. He spoke in a raspy voice, a result of surgery last year for throat cancer that cost him a vocal cord. His wife, Sylvia, crocheting a blanket next to him, nodded in agreement.

A state judge, at Ford's request, has ordered each of the residents to provide lengthy sworn statements detailing any illness or property damage, how long residents have lived in their homes and whether their work exposes them to pollution.

The residents' attorneys have set up shop at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, a hub for the community, to help them with the paperwork that must be completed by Aug. 29.

"Each client is required to answer the interrogatories," said attorney Kevin Madonna, a partner of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who won a $96 million settlement for a Florida community in another case of industrial contamination. Among the other law firms involved with the plaintiffs is the Cochran Firm, which helped secure a record $700 million settlement for an Alabama community awash in PCBs.

Ford, meanwhile, is spending part of the summer exchanging documents with the residents' attorneys. The auto giant is required to provide sworn statements from company officials familiar with the Mahwah plant's operations and waste disposal. The company has spent millions in cleanups supervised by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

A hearing will be scheduled in September after the statements are provided.

As they wait for the courtroom drama to begin, residents say they continue to struggle with illnesses. Ford recently announced that new tests have found arsenic in the old iron mine area.

"Nothing changes," Mickey Van Dunk said as he shifted around on his living room couch, trying to find a comfortable position.

At Bob DeGroat's home on Van Dunk Lane, his family still feels surrounded by sickness. They live 250 yards from "Sludge Hill" the area where children played years ago in freshly dumped paint sludge, all rainbow colored and smelling of nail polish.

DeGroat's granddaughter, Briella Metaxotos, 7, suffers from unexplained nosebleeds. Last month, one was so severe she went to the hospital, DeGroat said.

Her cousin, Arianna DeGroat, 12, had surgery in January to remove a growth from the neck and spent five days in Chilton Memorial Hospital, DeGroat said. Physicians were unsure of what caused the benign tumor, he added.

His son Robert, 29, had thyroid cancer at age 10. Robert recovered, but he worries that his son Diante, 4, is being exposed to toxic wastes left behind in the sludge.

"I probably won't be around to see it, but at least my grandchildren will be compensated for what I believe is a horrible wrong," said DeGroat, 59.

A few houses away, a woman battles brain cancer.

Across the street, throat cancer survivor Paul Eugene Van Dunk still grieves over his daughter Pauline's death from cancer in 2001. She left behind two children. Next door, his nephew Collin died of a rare bone tumor.

Litigating such a complex case with so many plaintiffs could take years. Expert witnesses will be called by residents' attorneys to establish a link between exposure to the toxic chemicals and pollution and multiple cases of illness one of the most difficult legal and scientific questions to answer.

Will cases of lung cancer be associated with cigarette smoking, which is pervasive in the community, or arsenic exposure? And is the arsenic naturally occurring or did it come from the paint sludge, which some tests have revealed contains elevated levels of arsenic and other substances.

By one measure, the residents may have a harder time drawing a link between the chemicals and the illnesses because the types of cancer are so varied there's no signature illness that could be attributed to a particular trigger. In Toms River, for instance, the community's case against a utility company was settled for a reported $13 million in 2002 shortly after the state reported higher- than-expected rates of leukemia and brain cancer among children in the area.

In New Jersey, plaintiffs have to prove Ford's waste was a "substantial" factor in bringing about injury, but not the sole cause, experts say.

Dr. James Dahlgren, a toxicologist who helped a California community win more than $300 million in a case that became the Hollywood blockbuster "Erin Brockovich," is convinced that residents were exposed to multiple toxic substances.

"The kids played in the sludge," said Dahlgren, a leading expert for the residents. "These people waded in the sludge. There's no question they have been exposed. My concern is it's still not safe there."


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