Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats John F. McKeon, L. Grace Spencer and Thomas Giblin that would protect taxpayers and hold corporations responsible for pollution was advanced by an Assembly panel on Thursday.
“For years now, polluters have been hiding behind a shield created at the expense of taxpayers. This bill removes that shield and finally holds polluters accountable to pay for the damage they’ve done to the environment,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “To date, at least 75 municipalities have spent tens of millions of dollars being drawn into a lawsuit that they don’t even belong in. This legislation will protect them without changing the stringent laws we have in place for how sewage is treated.”
The legislation (A-3128) amends the “Spill Compensation and Control Act,” to clarify the original intent of the act, placing the burden of pollution costs on the polluters not on taxpayers.
“This is the best thing that could happen to the Passaic River and the Newark Basin, which have been battered by polluters for decades,” said Spencer, Chair of the Assembly Environment Committee (D-Essex). “This will shield taxpayers from nonsensical and expensive lawsuits without impacting the way sewage is treated in the least.”
The measure was prompted by the “Occidental Litigation,” which stems from a 2005 lawsuit the state brought against Occidental Chemical Corporation and several other companies, including Maxus Energy Corporation and Tierra Solutions, Inc., under the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act. The lawsuit seeks to impose liability upon these companies for intentionally polluting the Passaic River and Newark Bay during the period from 1951 to 1969 with hazardous substances, including dioxin, a chemical used in Agent Orange among other things.
The sponsors noted that in 2009, approximately 300 third-party defendants were drawn into the lawsuit by these corporations, including six sewage authorities, 75 municipalities, and more than 200 other governmental and private entities in an attempt to spread the cost of the cleanup. By filing third-party complaints against public sewage treatment facilities and municipalities, the plaintiffs, if successful, will shift part of the cost of damages onto the taxpayer, not the polluter.
“Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Union, Hudson and Middlesex counties have all been affected by this lawsuit,” said Giblin (D-Essex/Passaic). “Making these changes to the law will remove municipalities and taxpayers from harm so nobody is standing in the way of the state coming after these polluters.”
Specifically, the bill approved today would clarify that domestic, commercial, or industrial wastewater, sewage, or sewage sludge collected by or expelled from a sanitary sewer system or a public sewage treatment plant does not constitute a hazardous substance under the “Spill Compensation and Control Act,” of 1976.
Current law expressly excepts sewage and sewage sludge from the definition of a hazardous substance under the “Spill Compensation and Control Act.” This bill would clarify that this exception for sewage and sewage sludge includes domestic, commercial, or industrial wastewater, sewage, or sewage sludge collected by or expelled from a sanitary sewer system or a public sewage treatment plant.