N.J. charges companies polluted poor communities and exposed residents to health hazards

N.J. charges companies polluted poor communities and exposed residents to health hazards

State and local officials announced six lawsuits Friday targeting polluters in poor communities around New Jersey.

Speaking at a press conference in Newark, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the state and the nation haven’t done enough to protect minority neighborhoods from polluters.

“These companies have put the health and safety of many vulnerable residents at risk,” he said.

He was joined by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Catherine McCabe, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

McCabe said these six groups had abandoned their neighbors to a host of potential harms, and that while these lawsuits would help, the state still had “a long way to go.”

The lawsuits are the latest actions taken as part of the state’s environmental justice initiative. The push to crack down on pollution in low-income communities began in December, when the states’ Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Environmental Protection announced eight lawsuits and the creation of a dedicated environmental justice section.

The newest complaints address pollution ranging from toxins leaking into groundwater to illegal dumping, which allegedly took place in Newark, Trenton, Camden, East Orange and Kearny at different times over the past few decades. Each location has a population that is heavily black or Latino, according to the U.S. Census, and each has a higher poverty rate than the state overall.

Representatives for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Sierra Club praised the announcement.

“Making polluters pay for their damage is critical because it acts as a deterrent,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel in a statement.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has also cracked down on massive illegal dumping sites in Sussex County and Ocean County, filed complaints against chemical giants like DuPont and 3M, and joined multiple legal actions against the environmental policies of President Donald Trump’s administration.

A company’s ability to pay for cleanup and the poverty rate at each site influenced the choice of these sites, Grewal added.

Here are the sites targeted Friday by the attorney general’s office:

From the mid-1960s until 1994, the Nanes Metal Finishing Company operated at 461-491 Fourth Street.

Six years after the operation shuttered, the state found dangerous chemicals in the soil and groundwater at the site, which is across the light rail tracks from Branch Brook Park in Newark’s North Ward.

Those chemicals included trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), which can hurt everything from your kidneys to your ability to reproduce, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Both substances are used in metal finishing.

Officials accused Nanes of refusing to clean up their mess, and said that the DEP has been forced to spend $500,000 on vapor mitigation systems to protect the current occupants from dangerous fumes.

Unionwear, a garment manufacturer, currently operates at the site.

The state is seeking a court order to compel Nanes and the current property owners to complete cleanup and to payback the $500,000. McCabe said Friday that groundwater pollution was particularly problematic because it could take decades to fully clean.

Officials alleged that one of those same chemicals, PCE, leaked out of underground storage tanks in the state’s capitol, and vapors now threaten five homes near 723-725 Chestnut Street.

Those tanks belonged to Sainte Marie Dry Cleaners, which officials said was operated for more than a decade by a man named Walter Zoladz.

Zoladz abandoned it to foreclosure in 2008 without conducting any environmental cleanup, officials said.

The state has spent more than $400,000 to install systems that protect residents from the fumes since the DEP discovered that PCE from the site had migrated to nearby properties.

The state’s lawsuit demands that Zoladz and the current owners, CHM Properties, LLC, do more to clean the area, reimburse the DEP for money already spent and pay additional fines.

The state also sued Schofield Cleaners, which operated near the Delaware River at 1474 West State Street, for allegedly refusing to clean up its own PCE pollution. That refusal led the DEP to fine the cleaners more than $100,000 in July 2017.

The state is now suing Schofield Cleaners to compel cleanup of the site, payment of the 2017 fine and new fines for violations since then.

A number listed for Schofield Cleaners is no longer in service.

A few blocks from the Delaware River are 10,000 cubic yards of scrap metal, construction debris and other trash, officials said.

The DEP has accused William F. Yocco and Damon A. Yocco of running an illegal dump at 260-268 Chestnut Street since 2013, when the state successfully forced the pair to remove hazardous waste from the site. But efforts to force the disposal of the remaining waste have been unsuccessful.

The Yoccos sold the lot to the current owner, Andre Webb, on July 19; the state claims that neither the Yoccos nor Webb made a plan to cleanup the remaining waste.

Now, the state is suing to force the cleanup of the site by the end of the year, and for further fines to be assessed for past violations.

Two more lawsuits concerned alleged pollution by a Gas Mart in East Orange, at 66-68 North Park Street, and Auto Scrap in Kearny, at 34-38 Stover Avenue, according to a release.

The Gas Mart is a gas station that has been a source of environmental problems for more than a decade, according to DEP records, for long-standing problems with the maintenance of four underground storage tanks at the site.

On multiple occasions, the DEP has placed delivery bans on the station’s underground tanks. In 2016, the state order Gas Mart to remove its four underground tanks and pay a $88,400 fine. That order has gone ignored; the state’s new lawsuit seeks to force compliance and the issuance of new fines.

The defendants in the Gas Mart case are Viathon, Inc. and Robert Comizio, the president of Viathon.

Auto Scrap, a junk yard that takes in vehicles and sells them for parts and scrap metal, has had run-ins with the DEP since 2002. The state claims that the business has repeatedly failed to prevent pollution from oil and other fluids from entering groundwater and being carried away by stormwater.

The DEP issued a final order to Auto Scrap in 2012, demanding compliance with previous state orders and fining the business $55,000. The lawsuit announced Friday seeks to force Auto Scrap to finally comply with that order.

A message left with Auto Scrap by NJ Advance Media was not immediately returned.

The state Attorney General’s office also issued a new handbook for New Jersey cops detailing how to enforce environmental law.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

Blake Nelson can be reached at bnelson@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BCunninghamN.

Michael Sol Warren may be reached at mwarren@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MSolDub.

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