NJ Leans On Creaky Environmental Firepower

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Dusting off years of disuse from the Christie administration, New Jersey officials leaned on nearly forgotten legal designation Wednesday in a sweeping effort to recoup public funds spent remediating polluted groundwater and wetlands.

Filed in various county courts throughout the state, the six actions cite millions of dollars that was spent on cleaning up a 9-mile Superfund site and other sites, one of which now sits beneath an elementary school in Newark.

Notable for the reliance on a designation that has not been used since 2008, and can be worth millions of dollars, three of the actions invoke the state’s Natural Resource Damages power, which involve claims for the loss of value and use of wildlife, air, water and other natural resources.

Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who is acting governor while Phil Murphy is on vacation this week, called the lawsuits “a clear message” that polluting companies will be held accountable. “For years, companies have failed to act responsibly, endangering the health of New Jersey and its citizens,” she said.

In addition to three cases involving claims for Natural Resource Damages, the state brought three cases Wednesday to recoup taxpayer funds spent cleaning up the sites.

“Today is just the beginning,” Grewal said in a statement. “We are going to hold polluters accountable—no mater how big, no matter how powerful, no matter how long they’ve been getting away with it.”

The most notable of the six cases involves the Pohatcong Valley Superfund Site, which includes several towns in Warren County and at which trichloroethylene seeped into groundwater. The site was designated a Superfund site in 1989 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The contamination at that site encompassed a 9-mile stretch of groundwater tainted with TCE, perchloroethylene and other toxic chemicals, according to the complaint, which names Pechiney Plastics Packaging, Bristol-Meyers Squibb Company, Myset Investment Company and several other companies as defendants.

Another case, against Chiquita Brands International and Ruggiero Seafood, involves petroleum and other hazardous chemicals discharged into soil and groundwater.

The underlying land in that case was purchased in 2004 to be the site of the Newark-South Street Elementary School. The state estimates it spent nearly $9 million in remediation efforts, during which 60,000 tons of contaminated soil was excavated, the complaint alleges.

The other cases include one involving TCE contamination from a cigarette-lighter manufacturer based in Newark’s Ironbound District, as well as cases against fuel refineries and gas stations.

Seen by some as lax on going after polluters, the state Department of Environmental Protection did not file a single NRD action during Governor Chris Christie’s two-term tenure.

The Christie administration also was criticized for settling an environmental case against ExxonMobil for $225 million. Though Christie had hailed the deal as groundbreaking, it brought in far less than the nearly $9 billion originally sought.

“Under Governor Christie, it was a polluter’s holiday,” NJ Sierra Club President Jeff Tittel said in a statement. “The people in these affected areas have been victimized twice: once by the pollution itself and then again by the failure of the state to go after the problem.”

Greg Remaud, CEO of the NY/NJ Baykeeper environmental group, said in a statement that the fines are “a very important step in ensuring the public trust resources are made whole by those who despoil them and deny millions of people access to active and passive recreation in along our waterways, our open space, and especially our urban communities that get hit hardest by environmental insults.”

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