The City Council voted on a resolution at its March 20 meeting that would could allow the MUA to settle a suit it was sucked into several years ago, when state and federal authorities tried to get companies responsible for the dumping the toxic chemical into local waterways to foot the bill for some of its impact.
Although veterans from the Vietnam War suffered side effects from the chemical used to help clear jungles during the conflict in the 1960s and ’70s, many were unaware until years later that some of these agents spilled out into the Passaic River during manufacturing at a plant in Newark.
Several years ago, New Jersey filed suit against Occidental Chemical Corporation, Maxus Energy Corporation and Tierra Solutions, Inc., alleging they intentionally discharged dioxin – an extremely dangerous, cancer-causing chemical – and other contaminants into the Passaic River. New Jersey also ordered the three companies to pay the state $2.3 million to develop a plan to dredge contaminated sediments in a six-mile stretch of the Lower Passaic River that includes a portion of Essex and Hudson counties near Newark, Harrison, East Newark and Kearny.
In turn, the companies are suing the municipalities along the Passaic River because most, if not all, dumped sewage into the river for many years before state and federal laws clamped down on the practice.
The City of Bayonne also has been included in this lawsuit, and according to Steve Gallo, executive chairman of the Bayonne Municipal Utilities Authority, this isn’t fair.
Occidental Chemical Corporation discharged chemicals into the waterway from its Newark plant and, according to the DEP, the high concentrations of dioxin in sediment within the six-mile area is an ongoing source of contamination to other areas of the river and the N.J./N.Y. harbor estuary – including Newark Bay, which borders Bayonne.
The Passaic and Hackensack rivers both empty into Newark Bay, so the pollution from them is carried on to Bayonne’s shores and beyond.
A way out of the mess?
Now, years later, Bayonne and a number of other towns may have a way escaping what has been called one of the most costly waste cases in U.S. history. But local officials are remaining mum about the details behind it.
“The city has a policy of not responding to questions about ongoing litigation,” said Dr. Joe Ryan, spokesperson for the City of Bayonne.
Steve Gallo, executive director of the Bayonne Municipal Utilities Authority, said he could not comment on the details, but said that the city is exploring a possible resolution to the matter.
According to a report published in a state newspaper a settlement would allow towns and municipalities to pay up to $95,000 each to extricate themselves from the suit.
Although Gallo could not comment on the settlement, he previously said Bayonne’s connection came as a result of its forging agreements with the Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority – one of the entities being included in the lawsuit – long after the leakage into the Passaic happened.
“What was released into the Passaic River after we joined was clean enough to drink,” Gallo said.
“What was released into the Passaic River after we joined was clean enough to drink.” – Steve Gallo
The federal Environmental Protection Agency determines that this dioxin is “one of the most toxic chemicals ever developed by man.”
According to a statement issued by the state DEP, “Human exposure to dioxin at extremely low concentrations can cause severe health effects, including cancer and reproductive damage,” and that “the dioxin (TCDD) contamination associated with Occidental Chemical Corporation’s operations has been found in the sediment of the six-mile stretch of the Lower Passaic River … and its continued migration has created one of the largest and most toxic contaminant discharges in the world.”
Concentrations of dioxin found in Passaic River fish and crabs are among the highest reported in the world, the DEP report said, and this presents “an imminent and substantial danger to the public and wildlife.”
Occidental, which did business at the time as Diamond Shamrock Chemical Company, argued that they were not the only entities polluting the Passaic River, which is considered one of the most polluted rivers in America. They noted that municipalities and other companies have been dumping into the river for more than 100 years, and that they should also be forced to pay.
Bayonne operates property in Kearny as part of its water access routing, but none of its sewerage releases of the past had any impact on the six miles of Passaic River that are named in the suit.
When interviewed just after the suit was filed, Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan said his organization had been poised to file suit against the chemical companies in 2003. But the Bush Administration stepped in, promoting areas in Newark Bay and the Hackensack River – including portions of Bayonne, Jersey City and Secaucus – in a federal Superfund cleanup study.
Under federal law, private organizations are prohibited from filing lawsuits in regard to Superfund sites, which are sites where toxic wastes have been dumped, and that the EPA has designated to be cleaned up.
“We always knew when the moment came and we brought the hammer down on them, they would try and drag in all the others,” he said. “It is cheaper for them to stretch this out for another 20 years than to clean it up.”
Although the original Superfund site only affected a six-mile stretch along the Passaic River and tip of Newark Bay, tidal flow has spread it up the Hackensack River through Jersey City to Secaucus and the length of Newark Bay into the various waterways along Bayonne, Staten Island and Elizabeth.
The cost of cleanup from the contaminated site is estimated from $1 billion to $4 billion, according to published accounts.