NJ Seeks Compensation for Natural-Resource Damages with Two More Lawsuits

Jon Hurdle | December 19, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
Murphy administration‘s aggressive strategy brings total of ‘NRD’ suits to 12
Sherwin-Williams plant in GibbsboroCredit: Emily Lee/WHYY
Sherwin-Williams plant in Gibbsboro

New Jersey filed two more Natural Resource Damage lawsuits against alleged industrial polluters, continuing an aggressive strategy by the Murphy administration to get compensation for contamination of the natural environment.

The attorney general’s office and the Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday jointly announced suits against Sherwin-Williams Co., a paint manufacturer, and Handy & Harman Electronic Materials Corp., an etching and surfacing company, claiming both polluted the environment near their plants in Camden and Bergen counties, respectively.

The suit against Sherwin-Williams says the company discharged waste products from its manufacture of paints, lacquers and varnishes into soil and waterways near its sites at Gibbsboro, Voorhees Township and Lindenwold in Camden County.

Heavy-metal rainbow

The wastes included lead, arsenic and other heavy metals, some of which were discharged into a creek that would take on different colors depending on the material that was being discharged, the suit said.

It accused the company of knowingly contaminating the environment for “decades” and of ignoring orders by the DEP to clean up its pollution. The suit alleges violations of three environmental laws, as well as common-law claims involving public nuisance, trespass and negligence.

Sherwin-Williams released a statement saying it is cleaning up the site and cooperating with DEP.

“Sherwin-Williams has a long-standing commitment to protecting the environment and has been working closely with and under the guidance and direction of both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection,” the company said. “After years of investigation and risk assessment, we are actively remediating many areas of the site. Sherwin-Williams will continue to remediate the sites responsibly, effectively and with full cooperation with the USEPA, NJDEP and the communities involved.”

The complaint against Handy & Harman alleges the company discharged hazardous substances including TCE, a solvent used as a degreaser, into groundwater at its factory in Montvale, Bergen County, during the 1980s. The chemical leached into groundwater from inside and outside the plant, leading to the closure of several drinking water wells, it said.

The new suit seeks to compensation for prior injuries to natural resources, and for previous and anticipated future cleanup costs.

Handy & Harman, now a unit of Steel Partners, L.P., a diversified holding company, could not be reached for comment.

“Too many companies have treated the public’s natural resources like private dumping grounds, despite the health risks to our residents and the harms to our environment,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, in a statement. “That’s why we’ve spent the past two years making polluters pay for the damage they caused.”

DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said the new suits go beyond cleanup by requiring restoration of or compensation for polluted sites. “Enforcing our state’s laws against past abuses puts us on track toward a cleaner, healthier future for all New Jerseyans,” she said.

The Murphy administration has now filed 12 NRD suits, including eight in 2019, after none during the previous eight years of the Christie administration.

Earlier NRD actions

The earlier suits included one over the Pohatcong Valley Superfund site in Warren County where the American Can Co. allegedly leaked the chemical TCE into an aquifer; a refinery in Woodbridge where the Hess Co. was accused of contaminating surface and groundwater, and part of the intracoastal waterway near Atlantic City where the state accused Deull Fuel Co. of polluting sediments.

“After eight years of no action, we need to use enforcement as a deterrent and hold companies accountable,” said New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel. “Now New Jersey needs to move forward in making sure these companies pay for the damages they have done to our environment and clean it up.”

Tittel said the suits are based on the 1977 Spill Act and on New Jersey’s status as a Public Trust Doctrine state, in which natural lands like rivers, lakes and shorelines are kept in trust for the public by the state — which can demand compensation for damage to them.

Although the earlier suits have yet to be resolved, the two new actions show that the Murphy administration sees the NRD strategy as a successful one, Tittel said. He argued that the suits are a deterrent to pollution by other industrial companies and have the potential of monetary awards that could be used for environmental programs.

And while NRD suits were not used by Christie, they were used successfully by earlier administrations to obtain compensation for contamination in places like Toms River, Tittel said.