South Jersey residents sue chemical companies over ‘public health catastrophe’

Lawyers prepare ‘dozens’ more lawsuits alleging birth defects, cancer after chemical exposure
Credit: (Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen; Delaware Riverkeeper Network)
Industrial plants in Carneys Point, Salem County, left, and West Deptford, Gloucester County are the focus of lawsuits.

A local battle against toxic chemicals polluting water, soil and air in parts of South Jersey is going to federal court, as multiple lawsuits are being prepared alleging that chemicals emitted by two industrial plants caused birth defects, cancers and other illnesses in dozens of people.

Four of the suits against a total of five companies have been filed in federal court for the District of New Jersey over the last year, and “dozens” more are expected soon, said a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“You really have a witches’ brew exposing a population for years and decades. It’s a public health catastrophe,” said attorney Steven Phillips in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

The plaintiffs are families in Carneys Point, Pennsville, Pedricktown, and nearby in Salem County who have claimed that their illnesses are the result of environmental contamination from the plants that include heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury, and solvents like benzene and toluene. Targeted too are PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) also known as “forever chemicals,” which are linked to a range of serious illnesses and are increasingly subject to state oversight.

Salem and Gloucester counties

The defendants are DuPont, which operated the Chambers Works plant at Carneys Point in Salem County from 1891 to 2015; Chemours, a DuPont spinoff which took over the plant in 2015; Solvay, a Belgium-based chemical company whose New Jersey plant is at West Deptford in Gloucester County; Arkema, its predecessor at that site; and Minnesota-based 3M, a leading manufacturer of PFAS chemicals that are among those blamed for the contamination.

All five defendants are accused of making, using and disposing of PFAS chemicals and of being responsible for their contamination of air, water and soil around the Carneys Point and West Deptford plants. Lawyers for the defendants have denied the claims and said the companies are not liable.

READ: NJ state sues chemical companies

READ: Federal PFAS regulation in cards with Biden win?

Residents living near the DuPont plant were previously reluctant to blame their illnesses on the company because of Carneys Point’s history as a company town economically dependent on a firm that was its largest employer for more than a century. But with the passing of an older generation of workers, and with increasing knowledge of links between the chemicals and serious health conditions, it’s now more likely that the company’s record will be challenged, lawyers and residents say.

Residents may also have been exposed to PFAS via contamination of groundwater from Solvay’s plant even though it is some 14 miles from the Carneys Point/Pedricktown area where some plaintiffs live, according to the suits. “The migration of pollution from West Deptford could easily extend beyond the immediate facility,” Phillips said.

DEP has sued Solvay

Solvay is already being sued by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, which alleges the company contaminated soil and water around its site for years, and did little to clean them up.

Asked to respond to the latest suit, a spokeswoman for Solvay said the company does not comment on active litigation.

Among the plaintiffs is Carly Corrar, 24, whose “profound and permanent personal injuries” include cognitive developmental delays; an inability to control her limbs; digestive conditions including chronic vomiting; breaks to several limbs because of a lack of coordination, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A suit filed in January by Carly and her mother, Shirley Bond, says the daughter was exposed to contaminants including three types of PFAS chemicals; heavy metals; industrial alcohols and solvents, paints, dyes and fuels through a variety of media including drinking water, soil and vapor intrusion, in which contaminated water seeps into basements and then its vapor rises into private homes.

Carly grew up in Pedricktown, about six miles north of Carneys Point, where Bond has lived since she was born in 1962.

Toxin-related illnesses

The suit says Bond, who has her own toxin-related illnesses, passed the chemicals to her daughter when she was pregnant. Because of the mother’s long-term exposure to the chemicals, it says Carly’s exposures of “greatest significance” were her period in utero, and during her infancy and early childhood.

Her injuries were “foreseeably caused by Defendants’ misconduct,” the suit says, including their intentional manufacture, use, discharge and disposal of the chemicals.

It argues that there are no safe levels of exposure to the toxins that are blamed for the plaintiffs’ health conditions. Even “vanishingly small” quantities of some of the substances have the potential to cause illness, and were “more than sufficient” to have caused Carly’s injuries, the suit says.

Concern about the toxicity of tiny quantities of PFAS chemicals underlies New Jersey’s recent regulation of three of them — PFNA, PFOA and PFOS. All three are now subject to enforceable health limits in drinking water, which are much stricter than a “health advisory limit” for PFOA and PFOS recommended, but not required, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Many scientists say the federal limit is too high to adequately protect public health.

‘Profound and permanent’ injuries

In a separate suit filed on May 13, Bond says she too suffers from “profound and permanent personal injuries” including several cardiac conditions, osteoporosis, scoliosis, and depression, all because of her exposure to chemicals from the DuPont/Chemours plant.

She says she was exposed to the toxins via air dispersion, ground and surface water, domestic water supplies, soil contamination and vapor intrusion at two addresses in Pedricktown where she has lived all her life.

Bond’s suit accuses DuPont of producing, using and discharging some 1,200 chemicals into the environment from the Chambers Works plant. It says the company also accepted large quantities of waste containing PFOA from off-site facilities, and discharged that and other toxic waste through its wastewater treatment plant.

The suit quoted a study by the DEP which said that DuPont “knowingly concealed the true nature of the chemicals it discharged,” and that both DuPont and 3M “put their profits above the public health, safety and the environment of New Jersey.”

3M denied its products were responsible for the plaintiffs’ injuries. “The weight of scientific evidence does not show PFOA or PFOS causes harm in people at current or past levels found in the environment,” the company said in a statement. “3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS, and will vigorously defend our record of environmental stewardship.”

DuPont did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Will be responding’ in court

Chemours said the claims in the suits lack merit. “Chemours is aware of these complaints and will be responding in court. The claims alleged by plaintiffs’ counsel lack factual, scientific, and legal merit.  We will defend ourselves against these allegations,” the company said in a statement.

In another suit, filed in August last year, Theresa and William Slusser, also of Pedricktown, claim that their son Alexander, 24, suffers from brain damage, cognitive impairment, motor deficits and “profound mental anguish” as a result of being exposed to the defendants’ chemicals.

The Slussers argue that Alexander’s injuries were “foreseeably caused by Defendants’ misconduct” and that they are entitled to recover damages.

Alexander is among about 50 plaintiffs who suffer from birth defects as a result of the chemical exposure, said Phillips.

“These are kids born with profound intellectual, cognitive difficulties, or paralysis. Some are paraplegic, some are quadriplegic; some are paralyzed on one side of their body — they are just God-awful injuries,” he said.

Another major category of injury suffered by plaintiffs is cancer, particularly blood cancers such as lymphomas, multiple myeloma and leukemias, as well as endocrine-disrupting cancers such as uterine, ovarian, thyroid, and breast cancer.

Other potential personal injury suits

Phillips said his team is examining “about 100” potential personal injury suits stemming from the chemical exposure. He said he won’t necessarily file all of them if he finds that a lung cancer sufferer, for example, is a former smoker. But he’s confident that many will be filed with the court.

“We already know that there are dozens of cases that we’re already quite sure are going to be filed,” he said.

Asked why the suits are being filed now after decades of unproven allegations about links between the chemicals and illness among local people, Phillips said there’s now growing evidence for those ties, particularly on PFAS, and that is being acted on by the legal community and publicized by the media.

“Heightened scrutiny has identified these clusters more than was true in the past,” he said. “A person who had the misfortune of having a kid with a severe birth defect wasn’t necessarily hearing what caused it and that is a very hard question for people to cope with.”

Even though the plaintiffs may have been suffering from their injuries for the last 20 or 25 years, the law allows them to bring suit against the companies now, Phillips said. “If the defendants hid what they were doing, and the man or woman on the street couldn’t figure it out, they can bring a lawsuit when the facts come to light,” he said.

Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a longtime campaigner for PFAS regulation, said the suits are the only available redress for people who have been harmed by the chemicals.

“People who were exposed to these highly toxic compounds have a right to try to make DuPont and other responsible parties accountable. Those who were personally harmed rightfully need to have their injuries recognized and addressed through legal redress. How else are they going to pursue justice for what has been done to them?” she said.

READ: Rutgers to study health effects of PFAS in Gloucester County

READ: Solvay says no more to replacements for ‘forever chemicals’ at South Jersey plant

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