Millburn to Hear About Passaic River Clean-up Case
As a partner of the Joint Meeting, Millburn could become part of a 3rd party lawsuit and face legal fees and a percentage of potential clean up costs if case goes forward.
Officials in Millburn, one of the 11 towns in the Joint Meeting of Essex and Union Counties, are closely watching the legal battle over who will pay the billions of dollars in clean-up costs for a 17-mile stretch of the Passaic River from Newark downstream.
The Millburn Township committee on Tuesday will hear from lawyers for the Joint Meeting, who will explain the potential liability the sewer company's partners as well as other private and public entities throughout the state in lawsuits brought by the polluters who are trying to spread the blame and share the costs, said Millburn Township Committee Member Tom McDermott, who Millburn on the Joint Meeting board.
Although several companies have been found guilty of polluting the river, one of the most contaminated in the country, and were held liable in its clean up, they are suing 300 public and private entities as 3rd parties, McDermott said.
With the potential of having thousands of defendants as 4th parties (if the 3rd party lawsuit continues) the case could be the biggest in the state’s history and one of the largest filed in the United States, McDermott said.
“The River is going to get cleaned up one way or another,” he said. “It’s a matter of who’s going to pay for it.”
Several companies were found guilty of dumping toxins, including dioxin (a chemical in Agent Orange) into the Passaic for decades under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act.
Each of the 300 entities is working to make sure the lawsuit doesn’t proceed or get public entities out it. If not, they will have to bring in 4th parties – companies in their towns or service areas that they think could have ever dumped anything in to the river, McDermott said.
Joint Meeting officials originally thought the 3rd party lawsuit would never see the light of day because of the billions of documents of evidence such a lawsuit would create, but it is now moving forward, he said.
But it looks to be moving forward and if townships and sewer companies aren’t able to get out of it, it could mean lots of money in legal fees and trying to find out who may have ever dumped anything into the river or its tributaries, such as the Rahway, going back 80 to 100 years, McDermott said.
“The Spill Act exempts household waste so we can’t be liable for any homes that discharged anything that was illegal,” he said. “But not so for industrial waste.”
Removal of contaminated sediments from a section of the river adjacent to the former Diamond Alkali/Diamond Shamrock plant site on Lister Avenue in Newark began in March and clean up will continue eight miles down river and could cost upwards $1 to $4 billion and early estimates to clean up the other nine miles could be as high as $5 billion.
“Five billion dollars split 8,000 ways (in varying percentages) would bankrupt some of these municipalities,” McDermott said.
The cleanup of the lower Passaic River is extremely important to the public health and safety of those who live and work along the river, and is a top environmental priority of the Christie Administration, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said in an announcement May 24.
“We stand firm in our commitment to hold Diamond Shamrock and its successors responsible for the pollution they caused,” Martin said.
The toxic waste dumped into the river decades ago, has resulted in a longstanding ban on the consumption of crabs caught in the lower Passaic River and Newark Bay as well as advisories on the consumption of fish, according to the DEP.
The first stage of a two-phase project to remove toxic sediments from the lower Passaic River, adjacent to the Diamond Alkali Superfund site in the Ironbound section of Newark, began on March 19, DEP officials say.
Tierra Solutions, under federal Environmental Protection Agency supervision, is currently removing 40,000 cubic yards of heavily contaminated sediment near the Lister Avenue plant site. In phase two, 160,000 cubic yards of sediments, will be removed from the same section of the river, NJ DEP officials said.
“We are finally making progress in the cleanup of the river, but are still waiting for a comprehensive cleanup plan from the U.S. Environmental protection Agency for the entire contaminated eight-mile stretch of the lower Passaic,’’ said Commissioner Martin.
The EPA, which is the lead agency on the river cleanup, has estimated the cost of remediation for the eight-mile stretch of the lower portion of the river at approximately $1 billion to $4 billion for several potential cleanup options. EPA also is overseeing a larger study of the entire 17 miles of the Passaic River to evaluate the need and potential scope of a cleanup of additional contaminated sediment beyond the 8-mile stretch.
Partners in the Joint Meeting include Newark, Maplewood, South Orange, East Orange, Summit and West Orange, among others. Millburn makes up 6 percent of the Joint Meeting and if the lawsuit moves forward, could be liable for 6 percent of the Joint Meeting’s share of the clean up costs as well as whatever Millburn’s individual township costs would be.
McDermott said it’s not fair to include municipalities because they weren’t the ones dumping, nor were sewer companies. In fact, he said, the Joint Meeting is rated highly by the Department of Environmental Protection and the treated water that goes into the Passaic is actually cleaner than the water that’s in already it.
“We’re hoping that the DEP will interpret the Spill Act differently. Many people say sewer authorities should be exempt," McDermott said. "We (the Joint Meeting) are challenging that because we go after Industrial users and fine them. We keep up with DEP standards. The Joint Meeting received a national environmental award this year.”