by Maria Newman for The New York Times
May 17, 2003
A federal district judge in Newark ordered Honeywell International to clean up a 34-acre site along Jersey City's waterfront that was created more than 100 years ago as a dumping ground for chromium, a byproduct of manufacturing that has been found to cause cancer.
The cleanup, which would involve digging up about a million tons of contaminated waste and replacing it with clean soil, could cost the Morris Township-based company more than $400 million, experts testified. The company will also have to remove the contaminants from the Hackensack River near the dump.
In the decision, Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh of Federal District Court said that chromium at the dump, which closed years ago but became the site of a drive-in movie and a furniture store in the densely populated neighborhoods of south Jersey City, presented ''a substantial risk of imminent damage to public health and safety and imminent and severe damage to the environment.''
The decision is expected to pave the way for the cleanup of other chromium-contaminated parcels of land in North Jersey, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said.
''This is the biggest one, the most egregious one, but it is by no means the only one,'' said Steven German, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Terris, Pravlik & Millian, which specializes in public-interest law. He said there were about 120 other sites in the area -- most in Hudson County -- contaminated with chromium.
A Honeywell spokesman, Michael Holland, said the company would appeal the decision.
The contamination began decades ago, when this part of New Jersey was an industrial powerhouse. The Mutual Chemical Company operated a chromate chemical plant on this site and pumped the waste through a pipeline, now Route 440, to a wetlands area along the Hackensack River, according to court documents.
AlliedSignal Corporation bought Mutual Chemical in 1954, and when Honeywell merged with AlliedSignal in 1999, it inherited the liability.
Honeywell eventually accepted responsibility for the cleanup, and had been working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection since the 1980's on a plan to clean up the contamination. But after decades of what they thought was foot-dragging, a small group of community and church activists, led by the Interfaith Community Organization of Jersey City, brought the civil lawsuit against the company to force it to do what the government seemed unable to make it do.
In his strongly worded decision, Judge Cavanaugh said that Honeywell had used its vast resources to frustrate government efforts to bring a resolution to the matter.
''I find that Honeywell was less than cooperative and embarked on a dilatory, foot-dragging scheme for 20 years,'' Judge Cavanaugh wrote. He said that company officials would make proposals for how to clean up the site, would take them to the Department of Environmental Protection, would be told what was wrong with the plan, and would then come back with essentially the same plan, frustrating the efforts of the agency.
The president of the interfaith group, the Rev. Geoffrey Curtis, expressed relief. ''It's taken forever to get us to this place,'' he said.
The judge said that Mutual had known of the dangers of chromium since the 1920's, and Honeywell since at least the 1980's.
''Although they have been directed by N.J.D.E.P on numerous occasions to take steps necessary to provide a permanent remedy for the property, Honeywell has failed to do so,'' he said.
In the 1950's, the mountain of chromium waste had risen to 30 feet, and the company eventually leveled it and sold the parcel as landfill. The Roosevelt Drive-In was built at the site a short time later.
Bill Sheehan, president of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental group, said he remembered going to the drive-in with his parents when he was growing up in nearby Secaucus.
''Down in front of the screen, there were always swings for the kids to play on,'' he recalled. ''On wet rainy nights, there would be yellow stains under the swings that the kids played on. When I was a little kid I didn't know what that meant. We thought it was just dirt. Now we know that that yellow dirt was chromium leaching out of the land.''