— Ford Motor Co. is taking responsibility for toxic paint sludge buried illegally decades ago along Torne Valley Road.

The upcoming cleanup in Torne Valley will be performed by Ford with oversight from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The cleanup is expected to remove paint sludge from about a dozen acres of town woods mostly located just north of Torne Brook Road across from the former Ramapo landfill.

“This is not just for us,” said Chuck Stead, an environmental educator with Ramapo College who investigated the area’s paint sludge contamination over the course of decades. “This is for our future generations.”

The sludge was hauled out of Ford’s massive auto assembly plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, which operated from the mid-1950s to 1980.

Ford spokesman Jon Holt said the company is committed to address what he called a “legacy issue from years ago.”

“There was waste disposed of by contractors. They were supposed to go to designated areas, but sometimes they got into the places they shouldn’t have,” Holt said. “We’ve been doing investigation to make sure we locate them and address them. We’re working with the DEC and making sure that happens.”

History 

Stead, 62, who grew up in Hillburn, said his suspicion over illegal dumping goes back to the days he trapped animals — raccoons or foxes —  in the woods as a young boy. He sometimes ran across a man digging a hole in the ground at night. When he went back to check his trap early in the morning, he saw areas newly covered with dirt, he said.

“They came in at night and dug holes with machinery,” Stead said. “I didn’t know how bad it was. But I gradually realized because they only did it at night.”

He took notes of the dumping in his trapping journal, he said.

Paint sludge that contained hazardous levels of benzene and toluene was unearthed near the Torne Brook as early as 1983. Cleanups were done in a small scale as the sludge was discovered. But a lack of dumping records prevented major remediation.

Torne Valley is located in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, where the Ramapough Indians reside. The indigenous people sued Ford in court about a decade ago, challenging that the paint sludge illegally dumped in Ringwood, New Jersey, caused illnesses in their community. The case was settled in 2009, and their struggle was chronicled in an HBO documentary, “Mann v. Ford.”

Toxins 

Paint sludge samples taken from the site contain toxic chemicals such as benzene, cadmium, lead and mercury, according to the DEC’s Superfund Project document, Record of Decision.

Stead, a two-time cancer survivor, believes he and many other locals contracted cancer over the years because they ate animals caught in the field, although no official study has been done to prove that link.

A majority of the hazardous waste left in the field, however, is buried deep in the ground, and it doesn’t pose an immediate health risk, Stead said.

Still, Stead kept urging state officials to remove the waste because it will eventually decompose or migrate, possibly contaminating Rockland’s aquifer.

More than 42,000 tons of hazardous waste, including about 11,000 tons of paint sludge, was removed from the area known as the Ramapo Valley Well Field during the first phase of Ford’s cleanup, which concluded in 2013.

The upcoming second phase of the cleanup will focus on about a dozen acres of the 100-year floodplain of the Torne Brook. The depth of excavation is expected to be about 8 feet. About 10,000 cubic yards of paint sludge and contaminated soil will be removed from the site, according to the DEC document.

For future generations 

Stead’s fieldwork got a base camp about three years ago when students from Rockland BOCES, Ramapo College, AmeriCorps and local volunteers completed restoration of a 200-year-old saltbox house on a town property on Torne Valley Road.

The field research center serves as a classroom to examine the long-range impact of paint sludge contamination, said Stead, who was hired in June as Ramapo’s program assistant, with an annual salary of $60,000.

Stead gives his new boss, Ramapo town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, credit for making this cleanup project a reality.

“His negotiation, not litigation, made this cleanup happen,” Stead said, noting that a team of town officials has been in discussion with Ford and the DEC for several years. “I don’t think enough people appreciate this. This is not just for us, this is for our future generations.”

St. Lawrence praised the automobile company.

“We’re very thankful that Ford is doing the right thing, doing this clean up,” St. Lawrence said. “This is great for the future generation.”

St. Lawrence estimated the second-phase cleanup would cost Ford nearly $20 million, in addition to more than $15 million it already spent for the first phase.

Holt, the Ford spokesman, would not confirm the figures.

“We’re going to spend whatever it takes to clean this up,” he said.

Remediation will continue until the end of this year, and restoration work will follow next year.

Twitter: @LohudAkiko