NJ Files New 'Environmental Justice' Lawsuits Amid COVID-19

By Clark Mindock
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Law360 (August 27, 2020, 8:32 PM EDT) -- The state of New Jersey has filed 12 new environmental lawsuits against alleged polluters in low-income and minority communities across the Garden State as part of what the attorney general on Thursday called the state's commitment to environmental justice.

In a press release announcing the suits, the attorney general's office and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the alleged polluters are contributing to serious health issues in low-income, non-English-speaking and minority communities that are simultaneously struggling with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said the lawsuits are a reflection of the state's commitment to environmental justice principles and its interest in seeking justice for low-income communities and communities of color.

"The scourge of COVID-19 has put a harsh spotlight on the way environmental injustices affect our basic health, and we're going to do the hard work necessary to protect communities from dumping, contamination and other illegal activities," Grewal said. "The message to New Jersey residents should be clear: everyone, and I really mean everyone, deserves to breathe clean air and live in a safe environment."

The suits target alleged polluters including gas stations, auto repair shops and fabric production shops across the state, accusing them of discharging volatile organic chemicals and contaminated stormwater, gasoline soil contamination and other violations. The pollution is associated with respiratory tract infections, chronically reduced lung function, kidney problems, neurological disorders and certain cancers, all of which could be exacerbated by COVID-19, according to the press release.

They suits were filed under a variety of state laws including New Jersey's Spill Compensation and Control Act, Water Pollution Control Act, Air Pollution Control Act, Solid Waste Management Act, Industrial Site Recovery Act and the Brownfield and Contaminated Site Remediation Act.

NJDEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe said her department's actions alongside the attorney general's office highlight the commitment of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to act on environmental justice and equity.

"Together, we are holding accountable those who, by design or circumstance, disproportionately harm the environment and communities of our low-income and minority neighbors," McCabe said. "Today's lawsuits complement the many ways that we pursue environmental justice, standing with every New Jersey community and for the shared natural resources that unite us."

The lawsuits follow on the heels of other efforts by Grewal and McCabe to enforce environmental laws and take action on environmental justice priorities, according to the press release.

Those previous actions include creating a new Environment Enforcement and Environmental Justice section of the attorney general's office and suing chemical companies like DuPont, ExxonMobil and manufacturers and distributors of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as "forever chemicals" for their longevity in the environment and human body.

The state has also filed lawsuits targeting federal government initiatives, including the Trump administration's efforts to roll back climate change, clean air and clean water rules. Additionally, the state has sought to stop federal efforts to allow offshore drilling off the state's coast.

Jeff Tittel, the director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey, told Law360 on Thursday that the group supports the lawsuits and the state's efforts to enforce environmental laws and protect vulnerable communities, but said that there are hundreds of other polluters that need to be brought to court and a lot more work to be done. Tittel said that for decades polluters have been allowed to get away with the contamination and that has significantly damaged communities across New Jersey.

"We're hopeful," he said. "I think we're turning a battleship but at least the battleship is starting to turn."

The alleged polluters either couldn't be reached or didn't respond to requests for comment.

The state is represented by Robert G. Lamilla, Dom Stockton Lamilla, Mark A. Fisher, Matthew D. Orsini, Robert Kinney, William T. Rozell, Erin M. Hodge, Thomas Lihan, Buffy L. Wilson, Willis A. Doerr, Samuel R. Simon and Kevin A. Terhune of the New Jersey Attorney General Office.

Counsel information for the alleged polluters was not immediately available.

The cases filed in Cumberland County Superior Court are NJDEP et al. v. Nature's Choice Corp. et al., case number CUM-L-000538-20; and NJDEP et al. v. Ennis Hyman et al., case number unavailable.

The cases filed in Essex County Superior Court are NJDEP et al. v. Penick Corp. et al., case number ESX-L-005696-20; NJDEP v. Little Mason Properties LLC et al., case number ESX-L-005700-20; New Jersey et al. v. Little Mason Properties LLC. et al., case number ESX-L-005698-20; and NJDEP et al. v. 43-45 South Center Street LLC et al., case number unavailable.

The cases filed in Hudson County Superior Court are NJDEP et al. v. Fathi Hassanien et al., case number HUD-L-003102-20; and New Jersey et al. v. 125 Monitor Street JC LLC, case number unavailable.

The cases filed in Passaic County Superior Court are Commissioner of the NJDEP et al. v. Adolfo Gonzalez et al., case number PAS-L-002545-20; and NJDEP et al. v. American Fabric Processors et al., case number PAS-L-002544-20.

The cases filed in Union County Superior Court are NJDEP v. Little Mason Properties LLC et al., case number UNN-L-002746-20; and New Jersey et al. v. Elizabeth Bolt & Nut Manufacturing Corp. et al., case number UNN-L-002747-20.

--Editing by Breda Lund.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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