Walter “Chuck” Stead has led the long fight for cleanup of a major Superfund site in New York’s Torne Valley. But he’s done much more than that. He has documented the region’s history, helped give a voice to the area’s indigenous people, and built an environmental education center to teach future generations.
Stead, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Studies and an environmental educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, is the winner of the second Toni Murdock Student Innovation Award. The award recognizes Stead’s research, change leadership, and organizing with communities in the Torne Valley, New York, and Mahwah area of New Jersey.
“Your work as a storyteller, activist, and researcher is a model for the role that academics can play in the healing of communities and ecosystems,” said Stephen Jones, president of Antioch University New England (AUNE).
Early Witness of Pollution
Stead grew up hunting and trapping in the Torne Valley. There, he saw firsthand Ford Motor Co.’s illegal dumping of paint sludge at its Mahwah automobile plant in the 1950s and 1960’s, which created the longest unremediated Superfund site in the country. Stead investigated and documented the pollution, after reading his own boyhood trapping journal from the 1960s and with the help of students from Ramapo College of New Jersey.
He then brought together a raft of town, state and federal agencies; Ford, and the Ramapough Lenape Nation to agree on and develop a remediation plan and clean-up for the Torne Valley. By last December, clean-up was completed at the wellfield that supplies much of the area. More than 40,000 tons of hazardous waste were extracted at a cost to Ford of close to 15 million dollars.
In the process, Chuck helped give a voice to the Ramapough-Lenape people, whose tribal lands are in the valley. “While it is a wonderful thing to be acknowledged by one’s peers, I understand that this award also acknowledges the significance of the on-going struggle for survival on the part of the Ramapough Indian community,” Stead said.
Chuck also turned, with the volunteer help of at-risk kids, an eighteenth-century saltbox-style house into an environmental research center and place of community healing called the Salt Box. While moving an earthen berm to site the Salt Box, Stead uncovered lead shot. “It was then I realized that this bank was the one my dad and I had used regularly to site in our rifles,” he said. “I’ve been a part of the Torne my whole life. “
His Work at AUNE
Stead’s PhD dissertation is an interdisciplinary narrative of the community using industrial history, ecotoxicology, memoir, and indigenous traditional ecological knowledge to create what he calls a “narrative of recovery.”
“Chuck’s work…demonstrates what can be achieved at the intersection of activism and art, science and humanistic research,” said Alesia Maltz, core faculty member in AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies. “Chuck would not settle for anything less than the highest standards of ecological cleanliness, and forged, for this community, a new standard of ethical research where their voices were heard and respected.”
The Toni Murdock award is given to a student whose graduate work has demonstrated a fresh perspective and an innovative or entrepreneurial approach to scholarship or practice that advances AUNE’s purpose of innovation for a just and sustainable society. Winners receive a $1,000 cash prize and the opportunity to work with the Center for Academic Innovation on the development of an initiative or program related to the work for which the award was given.
Tulisse “Toni” Murdock was chancellor of Antioch University from 2005 to 2012.
Learn more about Stead’s work and the Ramapough tribe’s efforts to clean up their lands.