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UNITED NATIONS, Aug 24 2011 (IPS) - “We have been living here for thousands of years. Unfortunately, we are the original people of this land, but we get no respect,” says Vivian Milligan, in a tone filled with sarcastic laughter.
Milligan, who belongs to the Native American tribe of Lenape people in the state of New Jersey, is leading a statewide campaign against one of the world’s most powerful multinational companies – the Ford Motor Company.
Her campaign, which has been supported by an array of rights and environmental organisations, seeks environmental justice from the federal and state authorities, amid calls for Ford to not take control of a site called ‘Peters Mine Pit’ in the area of Ringwood State Park.
Ford reportedly plans to re-establish ownership of the Peters Mine Pit, comprising about five acres of Ringwood State Park, a site where it dumped paint sludge and other toxic waste from its nearby manufacturing plant in the 1960s and 1970s.
For its part, Ford, which sold Peters Mine Pit to the state, says it has no intention to dump any more toxic waste.
Environmental activists in New Jersey say they doubt if Ford would ever take any concrete measures to clean up the site if it established ownership rights.
The huge debris of waste piled up over the years by Ford have had a devastating impact on the indigenous population as well as thousands of others living near the Ringwood Park, say environmental activists and public health specialists.
“They (Ford) have caused too many deaths, diseases and suffering for the people living close to the Ringwood area. They must apologise and clean up the toxic waste,” said Spiegel.
Tens of thousands of people in the area have expressed their support for Milligan, Spiegel, and other activists who are calling for the federal and state authorities to reject Ford’s applications to repossess the Peter’s Mine Pit area.
By the end of last week, more than 65,000 people endorsed the call for both the federal and state environmental authorities to reject Ford’s plan to retake the area.
Activists claim that the waste dumped around Ringwood contains high level of arsenic lead, benzene and other contaminants. Benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, is present in ground water samples and in a mine airshaft, where readings are 30 times above safety standards.
Spiegel said he feared that Ford would try to continue using the site as a toxic dump for its poisonous sludge and drums of leaking chemicals. The area is dotted with former iron mines that once provided the iron used in the construction of the Capitol Dome and the George Washington Bridge.
Recent testing shows that these abandoned mines are leaking, and that the witches brew of toxic sludge and benzene could potentially impact the water supply for over 1 to 2 million people in this watershed, Spiegel said.
In January 2006, residents of the area who were affected by the toxic waste took their case to the court. Their lawsuit was settled in 2010, with compensation amounting to a few thousand dollars each.
Spiegel and other activists say Ford has been “secretly lobbying behind closed doors” and fear that its attempt to retake the dumping site might be successful. “We know they have a big reach in Washington,” Spiegel said of Ford. “We have been pushing for justice for seven years. They are influential and powerful.”
Though appreciative of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision to have a meeting with the native leaders and activists, Milligan doesn’t seem sure if the government would decide something to be in favour of her people’s right to live in a healthy environment.
Meanwhile, activists trying to save the native people’s residential sites and the Ringwood Park look to the international community for help, because many Member States, including the United States, have signed on to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.
The historic declaration recognises that the indigenous people of the world have a right to own their lands and resources and that their knowledge in efforts to cope with environmental dangers plays a significant role.
Like hundreds of other private businesses from all over the world, Ford joined the U.N. Global Compact in 2008 and said that it would adhere to the principles of human and labour rights, as well as environmental protection.
In response to IPS questions about the dispute, Ford spokesman Jon Holt, referred to the company’s official statement that is available on its website. He did not explain why Ford was really interested in retaking the disputed land.
On its website, Ford says it is working closely with the Federal and state environmental authorities and that it has voluntarily completed the excavation and disposal of paint sludge from many of the areas indentified during a comprehensive site survey.
The motor company admits that it wants to “re-gain ownership of the small part of land” near the Peters Mine. “By re-acquiring this approximately five acres of land, Ford will be able to more effectively implement the remediation plan for the site and reduce the administrative burden on the Parks department that would be associated with any ongoing maintenance of the property.”
Critics wonder if Ford will take its promise seriously – with regard to the Ringwood Park toxic waste clean up.
“They don’t care about people,” said Milligan of Ford. “But let’s see,” Spiegel said.
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