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NJ Sues Polluters of Low-Income Communities, Wants ‘Environmental Justice’

AG Grewal charges companies with discharging waste water containing nickel and chrome, illegally dumping thousands of tons of contaminated material, and failing to clean up hazardous leaks

323 North Olden Avenue, Trenton
Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
One of the lawsuits concerns this site at 323 North Olden Avenue in Trenton

Hundreds of Little League players use a Camden park that’s contaminated with lead and arsenic from a former factory and is being cleaned up with state dollars because the responsible party went out of business long ago.

It may be too late for that polluter to pay but eight others, which all operated in low-income neighborhoods, are being told to take responsibility for a legacy of industrial contamination in a salvo of lawsuits launched by New Jersey yesterday.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the eight suits charging industrial companies in seven counties with environmental offenses including discharging waste water containing nickel and chrome; illegally dumping thousands of tons of concrete, asphalt and contaminated soils, and failing to clean up leaks of hazardous chemicals from a gas station.

At a news conference in a Camden housing project, Grewal said the suits, the first of their kind by the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, are an exercise in environmental justice, which recognizes that low-income communities often have to live with higher levels of air and water pollution than more prosperous areas, but have just as much of a right to a clean environment.

“Today’s eight cases are going to advance environmental justice in New Jersey,” Grewal said. “Environmental justice is a very simple idea: that everyone, no matter their race, ethnicity or color, national origin or income, deserves to live and work in a healthy and clean environment.”

More enforcement actions expected

He said the suits will seek to force the companies to take financial responsibility for the contamination they allegedly caused, and are intended to deter others from releasing contaminants into the environment in future.

Grewal also said he is restructuring the environmental enforcement division of his office to include environmental justice, and is hiring more attorneys to bring enforcement actions.

Catherine McCabe
Catherine McCabe, Department of Environmental Protection commissioner at a listening session with residents in Camden yesterday.

Catherine McCabe, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said at the same event that some polluters in low-income communities like Camden, Trenton and Newark have evaded their responsibility for cleaning up contamination.

“When neighborhoods and communities become polluted by the activities of some people, usually for profit, we must step up, not only to clean up those places, but to make sure that the people responsible for them pay for the cost of cleaning them up,” she said.

Camden residents who attended a listening session with McCabe and Grewal after the news conference, welcomed the initiative.

A ballfield atop arsenic and lead contamination

“It’s refreshing to see that we are now bringing the full resource of the law to bear so that we’re not just putting the full burden on the government to cover the cost but we’re requiring polluters to do their fair share,” said Bryan Morton, whose Little League teams use a contaminated park.

Morton said the field is on a former factory site where the demolished materials are lying just beneath the surface, and have been recently found to be contaminated with arsenic and lead. Although the responsible company has been identified, Morton said it won’t be able to pay because it went out of business long ago, and so the state and the City of Camden will have to bear the cost.

Puchack Wellfield, 482 Cove Road, Pennsauken Township
Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
The Puchack Wellfield site in Pennsauken Township

The lawsuits include a case against the owners of the Puchack Wellfield property, a Pennsauken site that between 1969 and 1981 discharged 9,000 gallons a day of waste water contaminated with nickel and chromium, a known carcinogen, state officials say. In that case, Grewal said the state will seek damages for injuries to natural resources as well as the costs of past and future cleanup in the city that has a median household income of $26,000 and a minority population of 94.7 percent.

The Pennsauken suit is the fourth natural resource damages case that the state has filed this year.

In Newark, where the median income is $33,000 and 89 percent of residents are minorities, the owner of a Gulf gas station is accused of failing to clean up contaminants including benzene and MTBE despite several enforcement actions by the DEP. That suit seeks a court order to compel remediation of the site and to recover the costs from the responsible parties.

Green groups hail tougher enforcement

Fillit Recycling, 213 Route 73 South, Palmyra
Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
The Fillit Recycling site in Palmyra is the target of one of the lawsuits.

And in the Burlington County town of Palmyra, where 31 percent of the population is minority, the state is seeking to force a recycling company to restore wetlands along Pennsauken Creek where it illegally dumped solid waste.

The other suits are over polluted sites in Trenton, Flemington, Camden, Phillipsburg, and a second case in Newark. Several of the defendants could not be reached for comment.

Grewal said the eight suits are “just the beginning” of the environmental justice agenda, and should be seen by other polluters as a warning that the state now has more resources to enforce environmental laws.

Environmentalists welcomed the initiative as an overdue attempt to get polluters to pay.

“For the first time in a decade, New Jersey is putting some force back into enforcement,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is especially important for Environmental Justice communities who already see a disproportionate amount of pollution.” Clean Water Action, which challenged an earlier cleanup of the Camden site as insufficient, said the new initiative would help low-income communities overcome years of pollution.

“Taking action is long overdue for lower-income and of color communities that are overburdened by pollution sources that exist under the radar,” said Amy Goldsmith, the group’s state director.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who covers the environment, most often water-quality issues, for NJ Spotlight.

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