TRENTON – Continuing to hold New Jersey’s polluters accountable, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe today announced the filing of two new Natural Resource Damage (NRD) lawsuits, one against The Sherwin Williams Company and the other against Handy & Harman Electronic Materials Corp.
The complaint against Sherwin Williams arises out of the company’s operations at sites in Gibbsboro, Voorhees Township and Lindenwold in Camden County. The State alleges that Sherwin Williams manufactured oil-based paints, lacquers and varnishes, and in the process discharged industrial wastes into the ground, into nearby Hilliards Creek and into other surrounding creeks and lakes.
The complaint against Handy & Harman arises out of its operations of an etching and surfacing facility in Montvale, Bergen County in the 1980s. During Handy & Harman’s ownership, the complaint alleges, hazardous substances – including the chemical TCE (trichloroethylene) – were discharged on the property, resulting in the contamination of groundwater and the closure of nearby drinking water wells.
Today’s NRD lawsuits mark another step in Attorney General Grewal and Commissioner McCabe’s efforts to revitalize New Jersey’s environmental enforcement program. After eight years in which the State did not file any new NRD actions, the State has now filed 12 NRD actions in two years. In 2019 alone, the State filed eight such actions, including the two filed today.
“As Attorney General, I have been committed to holding polluters accountable for the legacy of contamination they left in our state,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Too many companies have treated the public’s natural resources like private dumping grounds, despite the health risks to our residents and the harms to our environment. That is why we’ve spent the past two years making polluters pay for the damage they caused, efforts that continue with today’s lawsuits. I am proud of the twelve natural resource damage actions that we filed in just two years, and I know that we are only getting started.”
“Today’s two lawsuits continue DEP’s unwavering commitment to go beyond the cleanup of contaminated sites to requiring the restoration or compensation for the damage to our precious natural resources,” said DEP Commissioner McCabe. “Enforcing our state’s laws against past abuses helps put us on track toward a cleaner, healthier future for all New Jerseyans.”
The Sherwin Williams Company for decades operated a paint manufacturing plant and conducted related operations at multiple sites across Gibbsboro, Voorhees Township and Lindenwold. From the mid-1800s until the 1970s, Sherwin Williams and its predecessors manufactured a variety of paint products, including dry colorants, lacquers, varnishes, resins and both oil-based and water-based paints. As part of its operations, the company used and stored thousands of gallons of hazardous materials such as lead oxide, zinc oxide, lead chromate, and sulfuric acid.
According to today’s lawsuit, Sherwin Williams for many years discharged a “substantial amount of hazardous substances and industrial chemicals” into the ground and surface water. According to the complaint, the contaminants discharged include lead, arsenic and other heavy metals, as well as a variety of potentially harmful chemical compounds and waste paints. At one point in the plant’s history, the complaint notes, locals in and around Gibbsboro, Voorhees and Lindenwold rechristened Hilliards Creek as “Rainbow Creek,” because the water would take on different colors “depending on the color of the paint that Sherwin Williams was manufacturing and/or disposing of on a given day.”
The complaint alleges that Sherwin Williams spent decades knowingly contaminating the environment, and consistently “ignored orders” from DEP to address the pollution it had created. The complaint also asserts that the company “repeatedly issued misleading or inaccurate statements … to downplay its responsibility for the contamination.”
Given the company’s noncompliance with DEP orders, the complaint continues, DEP was forced to refer the sites over to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which placed two of the sites on the National Priorities List as Superfund sites decades ago. The EPA, working with DEP, is overseeing that remediation. DEP is now seeking damages for that prior pollution. The State’s seven-count complaint alleges violations of New Jersey’s Spill Act, Water Pollution Control Act, and Solid Waste Management Act, as well as common law claims involving public nuisance, trespass and negligence. As part of this filing, the State is seeking punitive damages.
Handy & Harman
From 1970 until 1986, Handy & Harman Electronic Materials Corp. and its predecessor conducted metal etching and surfacing operations at a three-acre property located at 20 Craig Road in Montvale, Bergen County. Operations included the cleaning of electrical components through a degreasing process that relied on the solvent TCE.
According to the complaint, TCE was stored in a pair of 500-gallon, above-ground storage tanks located behind the facility, with waste TCE stored in drums located throughout the property.
According to the lawsuit, “numerous” discharges of TCE occurred both inside and outside the plant during its operating years. As a result of the contamination, several drinking water wells operated by the Borough of Park Ridge were impacted, which led to these drinking wells’ closure decades ago.
In December 1986, Handy & Harman entered into an Administrative Consent Order with DEP requiring that the company investigate and remediate environmental contamination at the site. Since then, investigation and remediation activities have taken place both on the property and at impacted drinking water wells surrounding the property.
Through today’s action, DEP seeks to recover damages for the prior injuries to natural resources, as well as for the cleanup and removal costs that have been incurred by the State in the past and that are likely to be incurred going forward.
The six-count complaint alleges violations of the Spill Act, Water Pollution Control Act, and Solid Waste Management Act, and common law claims involving public nuisance, trespass and negligence. (The complaint names other defendants as well, including Steel Partners Holdings, which acquired all outstanding shares of Handy & Harman.)
Environmental Enforcement Program
Under the leadership of Attorney General Grewal and Commissioner McCabe, the State has significantly strengthened its environmental enforcement program. In particular:
- The State filed 12 NRD lawsuits in the past two years, including its first such actions in a decade, and including eight in 2019 alone. The cases involved:
- Exxon-Mobil, for pollution at its Lail facility in Gloucester County
- The manufacturers and distributors of a toxic family of chemicals known as “PFAS” (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances); and
- E.I. DuPont de Nemours, including for pollution in Pompton Lakes and at its Chambers Works site.
- Filed fourteen environmental justice lawsuits, encompassing a range of urban and rural communities across New Jersey, in December 2018 and November 2019.
- Filed other enforcement actions against polluters, including those responsible for:
- A solid waste dump in Vernon Township, Sussex County (Feb. 2019);
- A solid waste dump in Plumsted Township, Ocean County (Aug. 2019); and
- Odor pollution in the Ironbound section of Newark (Sept. 2019).
- Filed lawsuits against the federal government to:
- Successfully prevent offshore drilling off the New Jersey coast;
- Prevent the Trump Administration from rolling back critical federal rules that address climate change, clean air, and clean water; and
- Ensure that the federal government takes steps required by law to reduce the ozone pollution entering New Jersey.