TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency failed to adequately investigate toxic contamination in the northern New Jersey city of Ringwood by automaker Ford, according to an internal EPA report released Thursday.
The report, issued by the EPA's Office of Inspector General, examined the environmental agency's oversight of one of the state's worst toxic waste sites after complaints that EPA bungled the cleanup and put people's health at risk.
But some critics also fault the report, which they say lets the agency off easy.
The report concluded the agency failed to push for a wider investigation into how much toxic paint sludge Ford dumped in the area, didn't make use of aerial photographs that could have pinpointed more waste, and failed to keep the community informed about what was going on at the site.
''If EPA had done its job, this site would've been cleaned up long ago,'' said New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, one several congressmen including Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Frank Pallone, both D-N.J. who asked that the investigation be done. ''Long after the site was declared clean, chunks of sludge still appeared because EPA failed to properly identify the contamination from the start.''
A spokeswoman for the EPA, Mary Mears, said the agency would review the report before responding. A spokesman for the EPA's Office of Inspector General said the body does not comment on reports after they are published.
The report recommends the EPA make sure Ford has submitted all the relevant material regarding its dumping practices at Ringwood and make sure local residents are kept abreast of developments at the site.
Still, many people said the 17-page report, which cost about $545,000 to complete, didn't go far enough far because it failed to hold anyone at the environmental agency responsible.
''They spent $30,000 a page to essentially slap EPA on the wrist for some failures, but really didn't look into why the failures took place ... That just doesn't make sense,'' said Robert Spiegel of the Edison Wetlands Association, an environmental group.
Menendez also criticized the report, which didn't call for any criminal or disciplinary actions.
''Time and time again throughout this report we hear 'the EPA should have done more,''' Menendez said. ''That's just not an acceptable response for the residents of Ringwood who have been displaced and whose health is in danger.''
Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club said the report ''glossed over'' the agency's failure to listen to residents in the area who had complained for years about sludge lying around and failed to taken into account the effect of the EPA's lack of action on residents' health.
Ford spokesman Jon Holt said many of the issues addressed in Thursday's report, such as taking aerial pictures of the area to identify more sludge, have already been fixed since the most recent round of cleanups began 2½ years ago.
The company does not release information about the cleanup's cost, but Holt said it was in the ''millions of dollars'' and estimated it would take a few more years before all cleanup work was complete.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Ford dumped paint sludge and other toxic waste in the area from its now-closed car manufacturing plant in Mahwah, near the New York border.
Residents in the Ringwood area have blamed the paint sludge for health problems including certain cancers and skin diseases.
The site was eventually added to the Superfund list, a ranking of the country's worst environmental dump sites. After Ford performed an EPA-supervised cleanup, the site was taken off the list.
But due to the amount of toxic material that was later found, the site was relisted last year, making it the first site to ever be put back on to the Superfund list.