Directed and produced by Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink and produced by Jamie Redford, MANN v. FORD follows the Ramapough Indians and their legal team, led by feisty and charming female attorney Vicki Gilliam of The Cochran Firm as they take on Ford and the EPA, battling to secure a healthy future for their children.
Between 1967 and 1971, Ford’s assembly plant in Mahwah, NJ (the country’s largest auto factory when it was opened in 1955) dumped “paint sludge” and other industrial waste in the Ramapough Mountain Indians’ backyard. The Ramapo and their legal counsel maintain that the result was a deadly mix of toxic chemicals, including PCBs, Freon, heavy metals, lead and arsenic that saturated the soil and traveled through the air when the highly combustible chemicals ignited and burned.
Living in the midst of the landfill, the Ramapough children covered themselves with the colorful paint, forming and even eating sweet-tasting rainbow-colored sludge “pies.” The immediate effects for many included rashes, bleeding from the nose, eyes and throat, and severe headaches. It wasn’t until the children in this tight-knit and isolated community attended school with kids from neighboring communities that residents began to notice that their health problems were abnormal. Today, almost every home has someone who died from cancer, and diabetes, kidney stones, miscarriage, asthma, gastrointestinal disease and skin disorders are an everyday part of life.
In March 2005, Wayne Mann, who would become the lead plaintiff in the case, and other community leaders contacted The Cochran Firm. Attorney Vicky Gilliam was put on the case to determine if the residents of Upper Ringwood had grounds for a lawsuit against Ford. In January 2006, Gilliam and Kevin Madonna (of Kennedy and Madonna, LLP) filed a mass action suit involving more than 600 plaintiffs, charging Ford with property damage and negligent toxic poisoning.
MANN v. FORD follows community leaders Wayne Mann and Vivian Milligan and their lawyers over the course of five years as their fight for justice takes them from community centers to courtroom of American justice to the halls of Congress.
While Ford admits dumping in Upper Ringwood, their lawyers insist it was legal at the time. The EPA placed Ringwood on the Federal Superfund List in the 1980s. Under EPA supervision, the site was officially “cleaned-up” by Ford and taken off the Federal Superfund List in the 1990s, but most of the toxic waste remained. In 2006, the residents of Upper Ringwood made history when their community became the first site in the country ever returned to the Superfund List. Today, the EPA admits it “missed” nearly 80% of the toxins in the original cleanup.
The film features footage of former NJ Gov. John Corzine and Lisa P. Jackson, before she became current administrator of the EPA, visiting the site. A group of leaders from the community subsequently traveled to Washington, D.C. for Jackson’s swearing in, where she said, “Ramapoughs have lived on top of a Superfund site for decades. They are vivid reminders to me of how EPA can be a force for good, if it does its job well, and what can go wrong if EPA falls short.” She also called them her “conscience.”
As the years go by, and legal costs mount, the Ramapough face tough dilemmas and must make difficult decisions as they pursue their case. What ultimately transpires is both an emotional end to a real-life, high-stakes drama, and a revealing reflection of the realities of the criminal justice system. The Ramapough’s struggle is not an isolated one. Today, 74 million people in the U.S. live within four miles of a Superfund site.
Bob Spiegel, an outspoken environmental activist with Edison Wetlands, remains skeptical about Jackson’s ability to challenge Ford and make sure the community gets the cleanup it deserves. Ringwood, he says, “will be her test.”
Others featured in MANN v. FORD include: Jan Barry and Barbara Williams, journalists from The Record who helped to break the story with their award-winning series “Toxic Legacy”; Joe Gowers, EPA project manager for Ringwood; and John Holt, site consultant for Ford.
MANN v. FORD is directed by Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink; executive producer, Donald Everett Axinn; producers, Maro Chermayeff, James Redford, Micah Fink; editor, Howard Sharp. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.