Source: Natural Resources Defense Council
PPG Industries has agreed to clean-up of one of the largest remaining sites contaminated with cancer-causing hexavalent chromium in New Jersey. The cleanup is estimated to cost PPG up to $600 million and remove an estimated 700,000 tons of chromium waste from a Jersey City neighborhood. The settlement stems from a 2009 citizen’s lawsuit filed in federal court by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Interfaith Community Organization (ICO), and GRACO Community Organization (GRACO) on behalf of Jersey City residents who have been fighting for a comprehensive clean-up since the early 1980s.
“After decades of foot dragging, we now know this cleanup is going to happen, and it’s going to happen right,” said Nancy Marks, NRDC senior attorney. “What could have been a Swiss cheese approach to the cleanup is now a comprehensive removal of the contamination – no holes to be found. This Jersey City community should never have been stuck living on top of someone else’s toxic waste in the first place. They’re finally receiving the justice they deserve and will be soon free from this poisonous legacy.”
The settlement ensures PPG will clear a nearly 17-acre, densely populated area of Jersey City of 700,000 tons of cancer-causing toxic waste that has plagued it for over 50 years. PPG has agreed to finance the cleanup of the area, which includes the company’s former Garfield Avenue chromium plant, surrounding sites and contaminated groundwater. Wherever possible, the cleanup will involve the excavation and removal of chromium wastes, and disposal in offsite hazardous waste landfills. Strict dust control measures will protect residents and workers during the cleanup.
Since the lawsuit’s filing in 2009, PPG twice attempted to have the citizen’s suit thrown out of federal court in order to move forward with a less stringent state settlement. Both attempts were denied by two different judges. Notably, the federal court settlement agreement ensures the cleanup will reduce chromium levels to 5 parts per million (ppm), which reflects the best available science about the health effects of exposure to the chemical and is much more stringent that the state’s enforceable limit of 20 ppm. PPG will also test residential properties near the Garfield Avenue site upon request and clean up any contaminated properties to the 5ppm level. Since this agreement was reached in federal court, it also includes binding deadlines that cannot be delayed by state bureaucracy.
“This is a victory for environmental justice, for public health, and for the economic rebirth of an area that for half a century has been a toxic wasteland in the midst of a densely populated section of Jersey City,” said Reverend Willard Ashley, co-chairperson of ICO and pastor of Abundant Joy Community Church in Jersey City. “It’s a victory that will mean more jobs and less cancer.”
Another key element of the settlement is a commitment to allow community monitoring of the cleanup process, empowering local citizens with a level of control over the cleanup of their own community. PPG will fund a community-hired expert, who will be provided full access to watch over the process.
“State chromium standards are insufficiently protective of public health,” saaid Public Justice environmental attorney Richard Webster. “Through our lawsuit we sought and won better, higher standards.”
The cleanup will begin this spring and will take approximately five years to complete. The settlement, submitted to the court today, will become final when signed by the federal judge. It does not prevent other pending legal claims against PPG, including a state court class action for individual damages, from moving forward. Public Justice helped represent NRDC and ICO in the case, and GRACO was represented by the firm of Lieberman & Blecher from Princeton, New Jersey.
“This settlement proves once again that environmental laws can produce effective results in New Jersey and that communities do not have to continue to be victimized by environmental dangers,” said Stuart Lieberman of Lieberman & Blecher. “Communities can work together to secure a healthier environment for themselves and for their children. This settlement means cleaner soil, water and air for this community.”
PPG Industries, a Pittsburgh-based corporation, first began investigating the chromium contamination in 1982. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began enforcement efforts at the PPG complex soon thereafter, and in 1990 reached an agreement requiring PPG to clean up dozens of sites the DEP believed they had contaminated. Those clean-up efforts should have been completed by the late 1990s, but PPG did not move forward with the chromium removal project and the DEP failed to enforce a clean-up. After years of inaction by PPG and the state, NRDC and ICO filed their lawsuit in federal district court in Newark in 2009 under the citizens’ suit provisions of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In June of 2009, GRACO was added as a third plaintiff in the lawsuit. GRACO is a community group comprised of individuals living in direct proximity to the main PPG chromium contaminated site.
A byproduct of the chromate chemical production facility housed on the site 50 years ago, hexavalent chromium – the real-life villain in the Erin Brockovich story – is toxic to humans and animals. PPG itself sampled soil and groundwater and reported elevated levels – some more than 2,500 times the state clean-up standard – of the toxic chemical throughout the site. Tests also reveal that chromium contamination has migrated off the site to surrounding areas, including inside homes and schools in the densely populated African American and Latino community. It will continue to spread until the site is cleaned up.
Exposure to this type of chromium has been found to cause cancer, respiratory problems, kidney and liver damage, chromium ulcers, and nasal septum perforations, as well as pregnancy and delivery complications for women. A study found that Jersey City residents living closer to contaminated sites have significantly higher incidence of lung cancer than those who live further away.