Environmental groups launch injunction over chemical site


EDISON – A local environmental group has filed for a preliminary injunction to step up court proceedings on a lawsuit regarding alleged pollution from an Edison chemical plant.

On Wednesday, July 16, the Edison Wetlands Association (EWA), in cooperation with the Eastern Environmental Law Center (EELC), filed a preliminary injunction against the chemical firms Basell USA and AkzoNobel Inc., the former (Basell) and current (AkzoNobel) owners of a chemical processing plant off Meadow Road in Edison.

The motion is in support of a federal lawsuit the organizations filed against the companies in January. If the injunction is successful, the courts will prioritize hearings on the matter and take action earlier than it ordinarily would.

Judith Weinstock, an attorney with the EWA, cited ongoing public health concerns as well as inaction on the part of state regulatory agencies as reasons behind the necessity of the federal injunction. People have been known to fish and swim in the water. During the press conference in which the EWA announced the injunction, a Jet Skier raced across the river’s surface.

“EWA was really patient in seeing how they [the defendants] would respond [now] that we were requesting them to clean up the ongoing release of contamination into the river, and finally got to a point where it was necessary, because they [the defendants] weren’t responding, to file a preliminary injunction,” said Weinstock.

The attorney said that the defendants have until Aug. 4 to respond to their request, and at that point, the plaintiffs will have until Aug. 11 to respond to the defendant’s reply. The courts, meanwhile, will decide on the preliminary injunction by Aug. 18.

The injunction, as well as the lawsuit, seeks to force the companies to clean up alleged contamination from the chemical plant, a short distance from the Raritan River, which the environmental groups say has been contaminating the shore, the groundwater and parts of the river itself. Richard Chapin, president of Chapin Engineering, a firm that did the sampling that detected the alleged contamination, said that the seepage currently extends to about 4 to 5 feet beyond the water line. Chapin, who said that the seep was discovered around March of last year, believes that the chemicals are spilling out from water collecting and flowing out of pieces of corrugated asbestos from the site.

According to tests conducted by Chapin, some of the chemicals found include benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the federal government; 4-chloroaniline, which the state Department of Health and Senior Services says can cause skin blistering and is also classified as a carcinogen; arsenic, another carcinogen, capable of causing nausea and vomiting; and lead, known to be greatly hazardous to the central nervous system. A variety of other unsafe chemicals were also reportedly discovered through testing.

According to Chapin, benzene contamination was found to be more than 860 times the acceptable state level. The arsenic was found to be over 550 times the acceptable state level.

In addition, Chapin said, significant amounts of black tar and solid chunks of asbestos were also found on the site.

Earliest attempts to control the contamination, forced by state regulatory agencies, included the digging of three large wells to trap the chemicals before they reached the river, but Chapin said that this was ineffective in keeping the pollution from the ground water. The engineer believes that the best way to address the problem is to dig large trenches after removing the contaminated sand and soil.

Greg Remaud, with New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, an organization devoted to preserving the Hudson and Raritan estuaries, said that contamination in the Raritan River is a problem that extends far past Edison. The water from the river, he said, moves into the larger estuary and then into the food chain. This, in turn, can affect fish and clam stocks, reducing public access to natural resources.

“We’re a long way away, but we can’t even begin until we address source problems,” said Remaud.

An attorney representing both defendants, John McGuire, with the firm Sedgwick, Detert, Moran and Arnold, whose New Jersey offices are in Newark, said that they are in the process of reviewing the papers, though he stated that both companies have a history of cooperating with state regulatory agencies with regard to environmental cleanup.

“We are in the process of reviewing the papers, filed with the court late Wednesday night, but over the past year AkzoNobel and Basell have been working closely with the New Jersey Department of Environmental protection on the issues raised by EWA in its motion. AkzoNobel and Basell will continue to work with the DEP to ensure that the environment is protected,” said McGuire.

Representatives from the EWA did not find this explanation satisfactory, with Bob Spiegel, executive director, saying that despite everything the firms say they have been doing to cooperate with environmental protection, the seep is still there and the area is still polluted. He faulted the state DEP for not pressuring the companies sufficiently.

“They [the DEP] were aware of this and they failed to act, and it was shocking to us where you could have a blatant situation just like this, where the public is clearly being exposed and nothing was being done by the NJDEP, and the responsible parties felt no pressure from the state agencies that regulate them to clean up this site … and that’s why we filed the federal lawsuit and why we need to file the preliminary injunction now,” said Spiegel.