Mann V. Ford HBO Documentary Review

This new HBO documentary will surely pull strongly on your heart, as it was designed to do. You will feel considerable pity for the Superfund site community of Ramapough Indians in Ringwood, New Jersey hit a deathly blow from rampant toxic waste disposed by the Ford Motor Company. The Superfund site is called the Ringwood Mines/Landfill site. The story of how a civil lawsuit pursued over some years on behalf of the residents utterly failed in achieving real justice for over 600 terribly sick and dying residents merits a large audience. But this film also failed in several respects to report the full story.

Before I make several critical comments it is necessary to explain that I worked as a professional on Superfund and similar toxic waste sites for many years either in my role as an expert working for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, an independent technical advisor for community groups, or an expert witness for plaintiff attorneys working for affected people. I worked on a very large number of Superfund sites nationwide going up against Environmental Protection Agency offices for insufficient, incompetent and ineffective cleanups that they implemented or that they allowed companies as responsible parties to conduct with insufficient government oversight. I had a sterling record of forcing better cleanups, including a number for minority communities hit by environmental injustice and racism.

I also played a key role in getting two communities totally relocated because of their exposure to toxic waste hazardous substances, particularly a minority community in Florida hit by dioxin contamination. The latter gets me to my first point. The HBO film focuses on the civil litigation and a series of incomplete and ineffective cleanups sanctioned by EPA, as well as disregard of dioxin contamination found by the investigation by the attorneys for the residents. No mention was made in the film of using the legal provisions of the federal laws and regulations pertaining to Superfund sites and their affected communities to obtain funding for the relocation of communities. If I had been working for the community I would have given the highest priority to forcing either EPA or Ford to pay for a complete buyout and relocation of residents.

As it turns out this would have made much more sense that only pursuing the civil litigation which, in this case, proved a failure. I say this because the residents settled for a minuscule sum of $11 million from Ford and $1.5 million from a local government, which after paying the attorneys resulted in a range of only $4,000 to $35,000 for people terribly devastated by a range of awful diseases, including cancers, with the average payment being less than $8,000. To me, that was just insult added to injury.

Civil litigation related to harmed communities living on or near Superfund sites has always been a challenge. But the film gives the false impression that, like the New Jersey case, it has always been a failure. That just is not the case. I worked on sites where companies were compelled to pay huge sums of money, usually in settlements before the cases reached the courtroom. Such beneficial settlements resulted because of truly expert attorneys aided by a team of superb technical consultants. The film gives the wrong impression that it is virtually impossible to make the legal case for causality between the behavior of a company and the health impacts on individuals, often years after the initial dumping or treatment of toxic waste.

Another deficiency of the film is that it does not dig deep into efforts that should have been pursued by technical advisors for the community; it received EPA Technical Assistance Grant funds but that activity has not been forceful enough. These efforts should have focused on the quality of the cleanups and that they have not been in compliance with the federal law, not so unusual for Superfund sites where the government allows corporate responsible parties to conduct studies and cleanups. I always used my role as a TAG advisor to advocate for impacted communities which required being explicitly critical of all official site documents.

Communities should never, ever trust the government or the companies held liable for cleanups to obey the law and perform permanently safe and effective cleanups. On every site I worked on it was necessary to lean heavily on federal and state agencies to obtain more expensive cleanups providing necessary protection of health and the environment.

Lastly, the film did not do the best job of fully explaining that the pursuit of civil litigation by attorneys is a major business decision because for large, complex toxic waste sites it requires a huge upfront investment of millions of dollars. Law firms must use experts to fully and accurately determine whether they can make a great case against a company and this requires spending large sums of money to gather critical data. The New Jersey case was admittedly made precarious by the terrible plight of Ford at the time the case was entering the court system, because the domestic automobile industry hit bottom. But the fortunes of Ford turned around not so long after the attorneys capitulated. In my opinion, the attorneys simply were not experienced and bold enough to spend what was necessary to move forward. And there was no mention in the film that almost always large companies have very big insurance policies that can provide large sums. Attorneys must have the courage of their convictions to put enormous pressure on toxic waste dumpers to get what communities deserve.

I feel very, very bad for the Ramapough Indian community, especially considering that virtually every resident suffered from severe health impacts because of their exposure to toxic waste that surely came from Ford. State and federal agencies have failed them. And many, many residents died because of their exposure. Apparently they are still living in homes in which there remains exposure to hazardous substances, which is a tragedy.

Make sure you see Mann v. Ford on HBO. Despite its deficiencies it tells an important story about toxic waste sites that at one time received major media attention, which in recent years has disappeared.

People also view

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *