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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wyeth Toxic Cleanup Settlement Approved

(CN) - A federal judge approved a deal that leaves Wyeth on the hook for cleaning up a former chemical company in New Jersey, estimated to cost $193.5 million.

Wyeth, a subsidiary of Pfizer, bought the Bridgewater Township property in question from the American Cyanamid Co., which had manufactured drugs and chemicals there along the Raritan River since 1929.

Another chemical company had actually acquired the property first in 1915, and operations there ceased in 1999. Today, the site's soil and groundwater is contaminated with volatile and semivolatile organic compounds like benzene, toxic polychlorinated biphenyls and metals.

The Environmental Protection Agency notes that the site is also home to a baseball stadium and the state's second-largest source of drinking water, the Brunswick Aquifer.

To date the EPA has spent about $2.9 million on a cleanup that is expected to cost more than $193 million.

After several rounds of negotiation, the U.S. government published a notice of settlement and consent decree with Wyeth, and invited comments from the public.

The consent decree requires Wyeth to remedy a majority of the site, which the EPA calls "Operable Unit 4," as well as finish remedying "Operable Unit 2."

Wyeth has reimbursed the EPA nearly $1.1 million so far, and the deal requires it to give the agency an extra million dollars for its previous efforts.

Aside from actions related to natural resource damages and unrelated sections of the site, the settlement also protects Wyeth from future administrative actions.

U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson approved the consent decree with an unpublished decision Thursday, noting that the township supports it.

"There was a bargaining balance as EPA is an expert agency in enforcing environmental statutes, while Wyeth was represented by experienced counsel in a series of settlement discussions," Thompson wrote in Newark. "There is no evidence that the negotiations lacked candor or openness."

Finding the deal procedurally and substantively fair, Thompson said neither Wyeth nor the EPA or any outside party has suggested that any entity besides Wyeth should be responsible for this cleanup and reimbursement.

One citizen contended that public compensation is too low, but Thompson tossed the sole objection aside.

"The commenter asserted that Wyeth should pay the full cost of the cleanup, plus additional compensation to people who live near the site," Thompson wrote. "However, Wyeth will pay for all the remedies EPA has selected under the consent decree, and the purpose of the consent decree is for Wyeth to remedy the environmental damage to the site, not to resolve individual tort claims."

The court also found the decree technically effective, based on the EPA's expertise.

The agency's Regional Administrator Judith Enck said in a statement the deal "marks an important milestone in EPA's work to clean up pollution throughout this complex site."

Assistant Attorney General John Cruden for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division added that "we cannot leave unaddressed the toxic legacies of the past."

Pfizer spokesman Nick Patrick said in an email that the firm "has a long-standing commitment to protecting the environment, the health and safety of the general public and our employees, and the communities in which we operate."

Pfizer "continues its dedication to remediating the site," Patrick wrote, adding that it "will do so responsibly, effectively, and in full cooperation with the U.S. EPA, [New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection] NJDEP, and communities involved."

Patrick said the cleanup costs "are covered by financial accruals previously taken by the company."

Representatives for the EPA did not return an email seeking comment over the weekend.

Headquartered in New York, Pfizer acquired Wyeth in 2009, and reaped $49.6 billion in revenue in 2014.

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