New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe recently announced the filing of eight separate environmental contamination lawsuits. The suits are the result of a new “environmental justice” initiative designed to address pollution and environmental hazards in minority and lower-income communities across the state.
“Our first-of-its-kind statewide environmental justice action should make one thing clear to the polluters that have run amok in these communities: Not on our watch. We’re going to make New Jersey a national leader on environmental justice,” Grewal said in a press statement.
As detailed in greater depth in a prior post, environmental enforcement has become a top priority for the Murphy Administration. In August, for first time in a decade, New Jersey filed six new lawsuits seeking to recover natural resource damages (NRD). At the time, Grewal and McCabe called it a “new day” for environmental enforcement in New Jersey.
New Jersey Environmental Justice Lawsuits
The environmental contamination lawsuits involve sites across New Jersey, including Camden, Flemington, Newark (2), Palmyra, Pennsauken, Phillipsburg, and Trenton. The enforcement actions also seek a wide range of legal remedies, including one NRD claim. Below is a brief summary:
- South Main & Hudson, Phillipsburg: In 1989, gasoline-related compounds were discovered in the ground water beneath the retail gas station. DEP directed the owner and previous owners of the gas station to remediate, but they did not comply. After neighbors complained of gasoline odors in 2005, the DEP installed a vapor extraction system, which it continues to maintain. The agency is seeking to recover its costs from the responsible parties. The defendants are Progress Petroleum of Phillipsburg, Inc., Yank Shoimer, Inessa Shoimer, U & Y, Inc., YFG International, Inc., Lekco, Inc., Arminder Singh, Baljit Kaur, and Baljinder Singh.
- Gulf Gas, Newark: In 1999, six underground storage tanks were removed from the retail gas station, revealing that the soil was contaminated with tetrachloroethene (PCE), benzene, tertiary butyl alcohol (TBA), and methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). The DEP took several enforcement actions against the owner, which failed to remediate the hazardous substances found in the soil and the groundwater. While there is no longer an operational gas station, business activities are still conducted on site. The DEP is currently seeking a court order to compel remediation of the site and to recover its costs from the responsible parties. The defendants are Joseph Wright, E & J Investors Inc., and E & J Investors LLC.
- Novick Chemical, Newark: From the 1960s through 2002, various companies, including Novick Chemical Company, Inc., operated a bulk chemical storage and chemical distribution center at the foot of Emmet Street in Newark. Soil and groundwater samples taken at the property revealed the presence of high levels of hazardous substances, including tetrachloroethylene (PCE). In 1987, Novick notified DEP that it intended to purchase the assets of a former operator of the property, triggering statutory remediation obligations. Novick entered into an Administrative Consent Order (ACO) with DEP, where Novick agreed to complete remediation. In 2014, DEP filed suit against Novick for failure to comply, and the court issued an order assessing significant penalties against Novick and ordering it to complete the remediation. The DEP is now seeking to require Novick to comply with the court order and the ACO, and to complete the remediation. DEP is also seeking significant penalties for past refusals to comply.
- Tirpok Cleaners, Flemington: From the late 1940s to 2017, several owners operated a dry cleaning facility on the property. In 2002, it was discovered that the dry-cleaning solvent tetrachloroethene (PCE) had been discharged into wastewater holding pits on the property, contaminating soil and groundwater and also migrated through the ground water to Flemington Water Company Well #6. It provided potable water to approximately 860 Flemington residents from 1977 until it was shut down in 1989 due to PCE contamination. The DEP is seeking an order requiring the defendants to clean up the impacted soil and ground water and to reimburse the Department for its cleanup and removal costs. The defendants are Tirpok Group, Inc., Tirpok’s Cleaners and Dyers, Inc., Andrew G. Tirpok, Jr. and Andrew G. Tirpok, III.
- 323 North Olden Ave., Trenton: In February 2014, 323 N. Olden Avenue LLC purchased the property , which had been a vacant industrial facility since 2002. Subsequent to the LLC’s purchase of the property, large amounts of solid waste—including hazardous waste and oil—were illegally dumped on the site in this outdoor area. The owners failed to comply with previous enforcement actions brought by DEP ordering them to clean up the property. DEP now seeks a court order to require the persons responsible for the property to remove the illegally dumped solid waste, and to pay penalties for the illegal dumping. The defendants are 323 N. Olden Avenue LLC, Leonardo A. Hernandez, and Gustavo A. Hernandez, Jr.
- Fillit Corporation, Palmyra: The DEP alleges that Fillit Corporation operated the site as a sand and gravel business and a yard/leaf waste recycling business, causing the destruction of wetlands along the Pennsauken Creek and importation of unauthorized solid waste. In 2012, Fillit leased the site to Jersey Recycling Services, LLC, which brought thousands of tons of illegal solid waste, including concrete, asphalt, and contaminated soils, to the site. According to the DEP, neither company has complied with prior orders to remediate the site. In its latest suit, the DEP seeks court orders requiring Fillit and Jersey Recycling to remediate and properly dispose of the solid and hazardous materials on site and to restore the damaged wetlands, as well as additional civil penalties.
- Puchack Wellfield, Camden: According to the DEP, a former nickel and chrome plating facility contaminated a wellfield that had provided drinking water to Camden County. From 1969 to 1981, approximately 9,000 gallons of nickel/chromium-contaminated wastewater were discharged daily to the property’s soil, directly or via unlined trenches that led to underground septic tanks. The DEP is seeking damages for injuries to natural resources caused by the discharges of hazardous substances at the Superfund site. DEP also seeks to recover cleanup and removal costs that have been incurred in the past and will be incurred in the future at the site. The named defendant is SL Industries, Inc., owner of the Property and successor to prior owners of the Property and operators of the plating facility.
- Monk’s Amoco, Camden:In 1984, gasoline from Monk’s Amoco, Inc.’s retail gas station seeped into the basement of a neighboring tavern on two occasions. After the owner of Monk’s Amoco failed to comply with DEP’s directives, DEP promptly installed a groundwater recovery system that recovered and disposed of roughly 300 gallons of gasoline. Subsequently—between May 1999 and August 2011—DEP excavated a total of seven gasoline underground storage tanks from the property. The DEP is seeking to recover its costs from the responsible parties.
In connection with announcing the eight environmental lawsuits, Attorney General Grewal also revealed that his office is restructuring a new unit to bring additional focus to environmental justice issues. The section, to be called the “Environmental Enforcement and Environmental Justice Section,” will repurpose existing resources and hire additional attorneys to bring enforcement actions and promote environmental justice across the state.
Grewal also indicated that his office plans to additional environmental contamination suits in the new year. However, he failed to reveal when or how many. “I’ll just simply say we’re busy,” he said. “We’re back in the game.”
Key Takeaway for New Jersey Businesses
The environmental justice lawsuits, and the accompanying statements by Attorney General Grewal and DEP Commissioner McCabe, signal that the Murphy Administration plans to aggressively pursue pollution in minority and lower-income communities. Given that the costs of remediation and related enforcement penalties, businesses should closely monitor the state’s new initiative and.
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If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Dan McKillop, at 201-806-3364.