AG, DEP File Natural Resource Damage Suit Against ExxonMobil
NRD Case, the 5th Since January 2018, Centers on Harmful PCB Contamination in
Wetlands and Waterways Caused by Years of Petroleum Product Dumping
TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today filed a six-count lawsuit against ExxonMobil, alleging the company is liable for harmful contamination found on and around its 12-acre-plus Lail property in Gloucester County.
Filed on behalf of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the lawsuit centers on industrial dumping activity at the Lail site in East Greenwich Township and Paulsboro Borough dating back to the 1950s. Among other relief, today’s lawsuit seeks Natural Resource Damages (NRDs), making it the fifth NRD case brought by Attorney General Grewal and the DEP since the beginning of 2018.
This is the State’s first NRD suit against ExxonMobil since the State settled multiple NRD claims with the company in 2015. At that time, the State resolved ExxonMobil’s liability for environmental harms caused by discharges from its Bayway and Bayonne refineries, as well as other facilities around New Jersey. But the State specifically preserved claims against the company relating to the Lail property.
“We’re going to bring the hammer down on polluters and hold them responsible for the damage they’ve caused in the Garden State,” said Attorney General Grewal. “We have strong laws on the books to require companies to clean up their mess, and we’re going to keep using them. That includes revitalizing New Jersey’s longstanding efforts to take ExxonMobil to task for contamination across the state. While the last Administration settled many claims with Exxon, they did not settle them all, and our action today continues the environmental efforts that New Jersey began over a decade ago.”
“The State is a guardian of natural resources for the benefit of the public, and when our resources become polluted, we have a duty to seek restoration from those responsible,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe. “Clean and thriving wetlands, sediments, ground and surface waters are critical to healthy ecosystems, and where they are harmed, DEP will work with the Attorney General’s office to bring a case for natural resource damages. This is one mechanism for safeguarding and improving the quality of our air, waters and land for all of New Jersey’s residents.”
By statute, NRDs are defined as damages for injury to, destruction of, loss of, or loss of value of, natural resources. NRDs usually include the costs incurred to assess specific natural resource damage done. Under the law, the State is the trustee for all natural resources, which in New Jersey include both surface and ground water, sediments, wetlands, and biota (animal life).
Dating back to the 1950s, and for decades after, Mobil Corp. used the Lail property to dispose of drums containing petroleum products and other hazardous substances, resulting in discharge of industrial contaminants into once pristine wetlands and waterways. The property is located in a tidal area of the Delaware Estuary, and it is directly connected to the Mantua Creek—which flows into the Delaware River.
Recent inspections and testing have revealed that—despite some remedial activity at the site over the years—groundwater, soil, wetlands, sediment and other ecological resources on and near the property remain contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl). PCBs are organic chemicals whose manufacture was banned in 1979 after they were shown to cause environmental harm as well as multiple health risks—including cancer—to animals and humans.
Indeed, the complaint notes that investigations began at the Lail property when disposed drums containing “various forms of petroleum distillates” were discovered – many of them unlabeled. Subsequent inspections also identified an aluminosilicate material – piled nine-feet thick in some areas – as a source of PCB contamination.
The drums containing hazardous materials were removed in the mid-1990s, and remedial activity took place on the property in the late 2000s, but “extensive” PCB and other contamination of groundwater, soil, wetlands, surface water and sediment remains. ExxonMobil’s own environmental contractor reported in 2017 that it had done small mammal tissue sampling and analyses in the area, and that PCBs were detected in the tissue of most small mammals collected for the study. The same report found that PCBs were detected in all locations where soil samples were taken, and that PCBs also had been detected in fish tissue sampled.
Among other claims, today’s lawsuit alleges violations of the state Spill Compensation and Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act, as well as creating a public nuisance and trespass.
Today’s action marks the latest in a string of joint environmental actions between the Attorney General’s Office and DEP since January of 2018.
On August 1, 2018, Attorney General Grewal and Commissioner McCabe filed six environmental lawsuits across the state, including three NRD cases—the first in a decade. On December 6, 2018, they filed eight environmental justice lawsuits across the state, including a fourth NRD action, and held an environmental justice listening session in Camden.
On December 20, 2018, they filed suit against the federal government, seeking to prevent the U.S. government from allowing harmful drilling off the New Jersey coast. And Attorney General Grewal and Commissioner McCabe have also filed a number of other lawsuits in the past year, challenging the federal government’s rollback of rules addressing (among other key issues) climate change, clean air, ozone pollution, and clean water.