For the first time in 10 years, the state is filing suit against polluters to have them pay to restore New Jersey’s natural resources, an important environmental tool that averts using taxpayer dollars to clean up contaminated groundwater, wetlands and other sites.
The administration of Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday filed three Natural Resource Damage lawsuits, signaling an aggressive new effort to not only clean up the thousands of contaminated sites in New Jersey, but also to restore natural areas harmed by spills, illegal dumping, and other activities.
“Today, we are demanding our money back,’’ said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, on an empty lot in Newark’s Ironbound section, near a housing development built on top of a former manufacturer of cigarette lighters. It polluted soil and groundwater at the site, and vapors from the contaminants are now seeping into nearby homes.
In this case, the state is seeking to recover the costs it incurred in cleaning up the soil, and the vapor-mitigation systems it installed to prevent dangerous vapors from entering the homes. Two other cost-recovery lawsuits also were filed by the Attorney General.
“We are going to hold polluters accountable — no matter how big, no matter how powerful, no matter how long they’ve been getting away with it,’’ Grewal said. “And we’re sending a message to every company across the state: If you pollute our natural resources, we are going to make you pay.’’
NRD lawsuits have been used in the past to restore numerous resources in the state, including not far away from yesterday’s press conference where a previous settlement has provided $23 million to create and expand a riverfront park on the Passaic River, according to Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe.
“It’s a primary mechanism for restoring our environment when damaged,’’ said the commissioner, who noted that $47 million from another NRD settlement helped create a park in Camden atop an old garbage dump.
In the past, however, money from NRD suits has been diverted to help plug holes in the state budget instead of restoring sites that were harmed in previous pollution incidents. The most recent instance occurred this past year, involving a $225 million settlement against ExxonMobil for polluting more than 1,000 acres around refineries it once owned in Bayonne and Linden.
The Murphy administration and lawmakers agreed to divert $125 million of the settlement to the general fund in this year’s state budget and another $50 million went to pay off an outside law firm hired to litigate the case. Just $50 million of the settlement was set aside for natural resource restoration.
An outcry over that case — in which the state had originally sought $8.9 billion from Exxon — led last fall to a constitutional amendment being adopted, which prevented future diversions from such settlements.
Another problem with the lawsuits is the state lacks any objective standards to monetize damages to New Jersey’s natural resources. Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, set up a legislative task force of industry experts and environmentalists to try and come up with a framework to establish such standards.
“I’m thrilled that law enforcement is finally going after polluters,’’ said Smith, who talked with Grewal about having his office join the effort earlier in the morning before the press conference. He hopes to have a bill ready this fall. “We need to get back in the game,’’ he said.
Greg Remaud, NY/NJ Baykeeper, said the new lawsuits will ensure polluters pay, not the public, to clean up damages they inflict on waterways, land and air. “This is a very important step in ensuring the public trust resources are made whole by those who despoil them,’’ he said.
One of the other two NRD cases involves the former Hess petroleum refinery in the Port Reading section of Woodbridge, where there have been numerous spills over the years and the state is seeking damages for groundwater and surface water contamination.
The final restoration case stems from a former manufacturing gas plant now owned by the Deull Fuel Company near the Beach Thorofare, an intracoastal waterway that separates downtown Atlantic City from the marshlands of Lakes Bay and Absecon Bay. The state is seeking damage to polluted sediments along the Beach Thorofare.
In addition, New Jersey filed cost-recovery lawsuits against a former retail gas station in the Fords section of Woodbridge and the former Ruggio Seafood Inc. manufacturing facility in Newark’s Ironbound. The state Schools Development Authority built a new school on the former site and spent millions of dollars on its cleanup.