State Court Gives Local Governments Power to Push Polluters to Clean Up Spills

Tom Johnson | December 5, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Municipalities can hit companies with fines of up to $50,000 a day if they balk at decontaminating toxic waste, says appellate court
Credit: Creative Commons
A recent appeals court ruling is viewed as reinforcing state powers to force cleanups by polluters.

In a case that may boost the ability of the state to force polluters to clean up spills, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled local governments can impose significant penalties against companies responsible for unauthorized discharges of hazardous substances.

The ruling by the appellate division last month is viewed by environmentalists as affording the state and municipalities a critical tool to force cleanups by levying penalties of up to $50,000 a day for violations involving the New Jersey Spill and Compensation Act.

The case involved an oil spill from three electrical transformers in Milltown that flowed into a local brook when they were improperly demolished on property belonging to the Alsol Corp. As a result, an employee of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection filed a complaint in municipal court alleging the company had failed to remediate the property.

Polluter challenges local jurisdiction

When the complaint came before a municipal judge, Alsol moved to dismiss it saying local courts do not have the authority to adjudicate enforcement actions brought by the DEP involving the Spill Act, a 1976 law designed to speed up cleanups of contaminated sites.

The municipal judge agreed with Alsol, dismissing the case and saying the jurisdiction of local courts is limited to enforcing a penalty entered either by an administrative law court judge or the Superior Court. The DEP appealed the case to the Law Division, which ultimately found municipal courts have jurisdiction to enforce civil penalties in an enforcement action brought by DEP pursuant to the Spill Act.

In a 20-page ruling, the appeals court affirmed. The decision was hailed as an important victory, reinforcing the powers the state has over polluters to force cleanups, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“Municipal court makes it quicker for the state to enforce violations against polluters and make them clean up their toxic mess,’’ Tittel said. The ruling also may help towns seeking to force cleanups where illegal dumping has taken place, a recurring problem in New Jersey, he said.

Earlier this year, officials in Vernon Township were frustrated by efforts to take legal action against a Sussex County resident who they claimed was operating an illegal solid-waste dump on his property.

The state also has experienced problems with so-called dirt brokers who bring contaminated fill into New Jersey under the guise of recycling. Legislation to address that problem is expected to be taken up by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on Monday.