N.J. cracks down on polluters with 12 new lawsuits. Previous actions have won millions.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

The Garden State took a dozen polluters in marginalized communities to court last week, continuing a multi-year effort that has already collected millions of dollars in fines.

On Thursday, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe announced 12 new lawsuits aimed at bringing environmental justice to nine municipalities.

There are cases in each of New Jersey’s three largest cities — Newark, Jersey City and Paterson — plus surrounding North Jersey communities. There are also a pair of cases in Cumberland County.

In each case, the polluting business is located in a low-income area where most residents are people of color. And in each case, the contamination includes unsafe levels of chemicals that can harm human health.

“The scourge of COVID-19 has put a harsh spotlight on the way environmental injustices affect our basic health, and we’re going to do the hard work necessary to protect communities from dumping, contamination and other illegal activities,” Grewal said in a statement. “The message to New Jersey residents should be clear: everyone, and I really mean everyone, deserves to breathe clean air and live in a safe environment.”

The dozen new cases are the latest thrust of the Murphy administration’s environmental justice enforcement initiative. The state previously filed 27 lawsuits as part of the effort, dating back to 2018. Most of those cases are still on going, but so far New Jersey has obtained judgements penalizing polluters more than $14 million combined.

New cases

The lead case in last week’s announcement is a natural resource damages (NRD) lawsuit against Unilever and Penick Corporation for pollution at an industrial site in Newark’s South Ward. Groundwater has been contaminated with chemicals linked to cancer, like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Today, that site is home to the AMB Liberty Logistics Center, a warehouse near Newark Liberty International Airport and Port Newark.

State law allows the attorney general to pursue NRD cases against polluters as a way to recoup costs for damage to and destruction of the state’s soil, water, and plant and animal life.

The state’s mammoth lawsuit against Exxon — which was filed in 2004 and originally sought $8.9 billion in damages, but was settled by the Christie administration in 2015 for $225 million — was an NRD case. It remains the largest environmental settlement in New Jersey history.

With this new case in Newark, the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has now filed 11 NRD cases.

The other cases announced Thursday include actions against the following defendants:

American Fabric Processors

This manufacturer, at 555 East 31st St. in Paterson, has polluted the air with VOCs and high levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx,), according to the state. The facility is across the street from the city’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Complex. Along with fines, the state is seeking an injunction to halt operations at the site until American Fabric complies with its environmental permits.

Deerfield Organics

Illegally buried waste at this Upper Deerfield Township composting facility is creating stormwater pollution, the state claims. The illegal dumping was done by Nature’s Choice, according to the state, which was the previous owner of the site and is also named in the lawsuit.

Little Mason Properties, LLC

This company is responsible for pollution from underground storage tanks and other sources at sites in Newark, Hillside and South Orange, according to the state. Each site is the location of a gas station; the Hillside site also includes a former dry cleaning business. Gasoline contamination is present at each site, according to the state. The dry cleaner — Astro Cleaners — also spilled cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE.)

Adolfo Auto Repair

This company, at the corner of Market Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard in Paterson, has failed to investigate and address potential pollution from petroleum products, according to the state.

Orange Automotive

This property in Orange is owned by 43-45 South Center Street, LLC. The holding company was fined $40,000 last year as part of an order to remediate pollution from multiple underground storage tanks. Now the state wants a court to compel compliance with that order.

Heba Auto Repair

Fathi and Alia Hassanein, the owners of this Jersey City business, illegally removed underground storage tanks at the property, filled the holes with contaminated dirt and have refused to comply with orders to remediate the site, according to the state.

Hyman Concrete & Construction

This Fairfield Township business and its owners are being sued not only for illegally burning piles of wood and concrete, but also for running an illegal junkyard at the site. Oil and hazardous fluids leaking from scrap cars at the property have possibly contaminated groundwater, the state warns, threatening nearby wells.

Elizabeth Bolt & Nut

Aquaserv Bottled Water, Inc. and the estate of Rose Haskell are being sued for lead and petroleum pollution resulting from decades of industrial work at Elizabeth Bolt & Nut in Elizabeth. That facility was operated by the Stemple Corporation, whose principals were Edwin and Rose Haskell. Today, Aquaserv owns the property. The state claims that both parties have failed in responsibilities to clean up the pollution.

125 Monitor Street JC, LLC

This company owns an abandoned industrial site in Jersey City. Past uses of the property have left its soil and groundwater contaminated with arsenic, copper, lead, petroleum, PCE and TCE. The state claims the company has failed to comply with an order to clean up the property, which was part of the sale agreement.

Previous cases

The dozen complaints are the latest instance of the Murphy administration announcing a mass round of environmental lawsuits. The first came in August 2018, with six lawsuits, including three NRD cases. In December 2018, eight more lawsuits were filed against polluters from Camden to Phillipsburg. The state filed six more pollution lawsuits in October 2019.

March 2019 saw New Jersey file four NRD cases against the chemical giant DuPont, two of which also named industry heavyweight 3M. That same month, the state filed a new NRD case against Exxon for pollution in Gloucester County.

The state filed two additional NRD cases in December 2019 against Sherwin-Williams and Handy & Harman.

Most of these cases are still ongoing, including all of the NRD cases. Still, three of the cases have resulted in multimillion-dollar fines being issued against the polluters.

Such sweeping enforcement actions are part of New Jersey’s larger push for environmental justice. Last month, the DEP named a new deputy commissioner dedicated to overseeing environmental justice work.

“The actions the DEP is taking today exemplify the Murphy Administration’s deep commitment to principles of environmental justice and equity that strengthen all of our communities, especially those most vulnerable to environmental harm,” McCabe said in a statement.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers passed landmark environmental justice legislation Thursday to protect already overburdened communities from future pollution.

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