The Record (Hackensack, N.J.), January 7, 2007

TWO INDIGENOUS PEOPLES LINKED BY POLLUTED LANDS

[Rachel's introduction: "There's a common thread" between the Ramapoughs in New Jersey and the Chippewas in Canada," says Ron Plain, chairman of the Aamjiwnaang environmental committee. "We're not afforded any human rights."]

By Alex Nussbaum

SARNIA, Ontario -- The parallels are striking.

A native tribe blames industrial pollution for widespread illness. A child dies of a rare leukemia. Land that sustained ancestors for thousands of years, locals complain, is no longer fit to fish or hunt.

But these aren't the Ramapough Mountain Indians of Upper Ringwood [N.J.]. They are Chippewas, members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Canada.

Tons of the toxic paint sludge dug out of the Ramapoughs' Ringwood neighborhood have been buried in a landfill near the Chippewas' reserve in Sarnia. A relief for one community, a burden for another.

The landfill is just one of a litany of worries for a community of nearly 1,000 people hemmed in by dozens of oil refineries, chemical factories, natural-gas wells and toxic cleanup sites here in Canada's "Chemical Valley." The Aamjiwnaang blame this industrial overload for high asthma rates and reduced life spans.

The dump, the industries and the sludge from New Jersey are all examples of how the worst pollution often ends up among those with the least clout, some here say.

"There's a common thread" between the Ramapoughs and the Chippewas, says Ron Plain, chairman of the Aamjiwnaang environmental committee. "We're not afforded any human rights."

The operators of the Clean Harbors landfill, however, don't think it is a threat.

The commercial hazardous-waste dump is 3 miles from the reserve, amid a wide-open stretch of farm fields. The smokestack atop its incinerator rises 225 feet into the sky, the highest point for miles.

Clean Harbors takes the worst of the worst from the Great Lakes region -- waste from auto plants, refineries, foundries and chemical makers. The company buried 190,000 tons of hazardous waste in 2005. It burned 90,000 more.

More than 5,000 tons of Ringwood's sludge has been brought here because it's too toxic -- even after processing in Michigan -- for burial in the United States.

When the trucks roll into Clean Harbors, an on-site lab tests samples. Material that passes muster is pushed into 60-foot-deep pit by bulldozers.

The landfill doesn't have the geosynthetic liners required of most dumps in the U.S. and Canada. Until recently, Ontario didn't require treatment of the waste buried here to make it less toxic, as other states and provinces do.

But the landfill is carved into a 120-foot-deep layer of natural clay and chalk, a unique geologic feature that the company claims makes it perhaps the safest hazardous waste dump in North America. The waste is topped with an additional 20 feet of clay. Toxic liquids that percolate out are collected and incinerated. The company also tests grass and leaves outside the site to ensure chemicals aren't spreading.

"I always put us second only to the nuclear industry as far as regulatory controls," said Donald Schwieg, a Clean Harbors vice president. "There's no environmental impact from this site."

There have been problems. Clean Harbors agreed to donate $60,000 to environmental groups last year for failing to properly report waste imported from the U.S. In 1999, farmers parked their tractors outside the gates to protest contaminated water and methane gas leaks.

Some neighbors don't mind the landfill. The waste "has to go somewhere," said Bill Allingham. "If you don't want it, then the best darn cure is to quit your consumerism. But people want and they want and they want."

Plain says people on the reserve just want the government to enforce environmental rules and to study their health complaints -- something the Ramapoughs spent years pleading for.

Plain says his sister-in-law and mother-in-law died of cancer last year. His cousin is in mourning for his 13-year-old grandson, who died in November of a rare form of leukemia some studies have linked to benzene, an industrial chemical. The boy's grave is in a cemetery beside towering chemical tanks.

In 2005, a University of Ottawa study found women here had given birth to twice as many girls as boys in recent years, an oddity some Chippewas blame on pollution. The author of the study, however, says the cause is unclear.

There's one more similarity to the Ramapoughs: People are frightened of living amid the pollution, but they are too tied to the land to go.

"We've been here 6,000 years," Plain said. "We didn't create this. We shouldn't have to leave."

Copyright 2007 North Jersey Media Group Inc.