A state Superior Court judge has ruled that the Occidental Chemical Corp. is liable for the $1 billion to $4 billion in costs associated with the cleanup of sediments in the lower Passaic River contaminated decades ago by Diamond Alkali/Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Corp., a now defunct Newark pesticide manufacturing plant.
Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday called the ruling by Judge Sebastian P. Lombardi in Newark an important victory for New Jersey taxpayers.
Lombardi held that Occidental is responsible under state law for cleanup costs associated with pollution caused by Diamond Alkali/Diamond Shamrock, which it acquired and merged into itself in the 1980s.
Diamond Shamrock/Diamond Alkali operated a pesticide and herbicide manufacturing plant on Lister Avenue from 1951 to 1969, polluting the river with an extremely toxic form of dioxin that resulted from the production of the Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange, as well as DDT and other chemicals.
"This is an important ruling for residents of communities along the river, and for all New Jersey taxpayers," Christie said. "It has always been our steadfast position that all companies, not just Occidental Chemical, own up to their responsibility for the environmental damages that they and their predecessors caused."
"This ruling marks an important step in the long history of cleanup of contamination that has severely harmed the lower Passaic River and deprived the public of safe enjoyment of this resource for decades," state Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the lead agency on the river's cleanup, has estimated the cost of remediation for the most heavily contaminated portion of the river, an eight-mile stretch nearest the Lister Avenue plant, at $1 billion to $4 billion.
Lombardi ruled that Occidental, one of eight companies named in a lawsuit filed by the state, is jointly and severally liable to contribute to the cleanup and removal costs under the state's Spill Compensation and Control Act. Occidental had claimed in court papers that it did not assume responsibility for the contamination from the Lister Avenue site when it acquired corporate stock from Diamond Shamrock.
The EPA and DEP are currently focusing initial river cleanup plans on the eight-mile stretch nearest the plant. Tierra Solutions, another company named in the state's lawsuit, is currently mobilizing to begin work on removing 40,000 cubic yards of the most contaminated sediments immediately adjacent to the pesticides plant. Tierra also is making plans for removal of an additional 160,000 cubic yards.
Lombardi has heard arguments on a second state motion that seeks to have Tierra similarly held liable for all past and future state costs. A ruling is expected later this summer.
Pesticides manufactured at the Lister Avenue site included Agent Orange and DDT. Agent Orange consisted of a form of dioxin, known as 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). This is one of the most toxic chemicals ever produced.
In 1983, then-Gov. Thomas Kean declared a state of emergency and authorized the DEP to take steps to protect human health and the environment following the discovery of extremely elevated levels of dioxin in the river. Soon after, the plant site and river were placed on the EPA's Superfund list.
Dioxin concentrations in Passaic River fish and crabs are among the highest reported in the world and present an imminent and substantial danger to the public and wildlife. Consumption of dioxin-contaminated crabs and fish greatly increases cancer risks. As a result, the state has been forced to impose fishing and crabbing bans in the river or Newark Bay for more than 25 years.
The DEP reminds residents that harvesting blue claw crabs from the waters of the lower river and the bay is prohibited because of the contamination. A coordinated multi-language education effort reinforcing the ban is currently under way, with the help of community groups and municipalities in the lower lower river and bay region.
The state is represented by the Attorney General's Office and special counsel from the firms of Gordon & Gordon of Springfield and Jackson Gilmour & Dobbs of Houston.
—TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM