The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) filed suit against a Connecticut-based chemical company that, the complaint alleges, is responsible for damaging New Jersey’s precious natural resources by contaminating groundwater at the site of its former manufacturing plant in Lodi, Bergen County.
The community surrounding the Hexcel site has a significant low-income and minority population and is considered “overburdened” under New Jersey’s Environmental Justice Law.
Filed in New Jersey Superior Court, the state’s lawsuit against Hexcel Corporation centers on contamination at the company’s former manufacturing plant on Main Street in Lodi.
Also named as a defendant in the case is a second entity, Fine Organics Corporation, which acquired the site from Hexcel in 1986 and operated the chemical manufacturing plant for a period in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kaye Veazey, a Hexcel spokeswoman, said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
The Hexcel facility at 205 Main St. was next to another infamous chemical plant, the Napp Technologies factory, where an explosion in 1995 killed five workers and injured dozens.
Remediation of the contamination site has already been completed. However, the lawsuit seeks compensation for Natural Resource Damages – specifically the lost value of groundwater tainted with volatile organic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and petroleum products.
“The Murphy Administration is committed to making polluters pay for the damage they have caused and to addressing environmental injustices visited for decades upon New Jersey’s minority and low-income communities,” said Platki, who called the lawsuit “yet another example of how we are prioritizing enforcement actions in environmentally overburdened communities.”
LaTourette said legal actions like this send a clear and important message to those responsible for contaminating the public’s natural resources: “when you pollute the environment, not only must you stop and clean up your pollution, you also must restore the natural resources that were injured and compensate the public for their loss.”
“Natural capital like our groundwater is always working for us,” said LaTourette. “The growth and success of our communities demands that we maintain the free public services that clean, healthy and equally accessible natural capital provides.”
The contamination at issue in the lawsuit involves a mix of toxic chemical pollutants and fuel oil that originated from leaking storage tanks and regular operations at the Hexcel plant over a span of many years, and found its way into groundwater beneath the property.
Groundwater is an important natural resource for the community near the site and the people of New Jersey.
Prior to the curtailing of operations at the site in 1998, and subsequent demolition of the buildings, the Hexcel facility manufactured and stored pharmaceutical, organic, and inorganic chemicals.
Those toxic chemicals included perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), both of which are volatile organic compounds that persist in groundwater for extended periods of time.
According to the complaint filed April 4, 2022, such chemicals “move quickly through urban environments, often causing harmful chemical vapors to seep into homes and businesses.” The complaint notes that the chemicals have been linked to kidney dysfunction, respiratory tract irritation and cognitive and neurological issues.
Groundwater at the site was also found to be tainted with PCBs.
According to the state’s complaint, PCBs are substances that “do not break down easily in the environment,” and have been shown to cause damage to the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems in both humans and wildlife, as well as an increased risk of cancer. In addition, groundwater contamination from fuel oil leaked at the site poses health threats, as well as threats to plant growth, birds and mammals.
Hexcel owned and operated the manufacturing facility in Lodi from 1973 until 1986, when it sold the property to Fine Organics. Fine Organics operated the plant until 1998.
Inspections and testing attendant to the property sale revealed substantial contamination with multiple toxic chemicals, and DEP only approved the transaction after Hexcel committed to remediating the site.
As part of the subsequent remediation, 8,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil and 53,000 gallons of groundwater were removed from the property. However, as of 2016 groundwater at the site still had not reached its pre-contamination condition, and was not projected to until at least 2041.
Among other claims, the lawsuit alleges violations by Hexcel and Fine Organics of both New Jersey’s Spill Compensation and Control Act and Water Pollution Control Act.
The lawsuit also alleges that, through their contamination of groundwater resources, the defendant companies have unlawfully trespassed and created a public nuisance.
In addition to seeking compensation for the lost value of groundwater tainted by contaminants from the Hexcel site, the lawsuit seeks reimbursement to DEP for costs associated with investigating and assessing the injury to natural resources, as well as litigation costs.
Including this lawsuit, the Attorney General’s Office and DEP have filed a total of 46 environmental justice cases since 2018.
Many of the cases have resulted in court orders requiring responsible parties to protect public health and the environment by remediating the properties at issue.
Such orders are important fiscally as well, as they ensure that polluters not New Jersey taxpayers—bear the cost of cleaning up harmful contamination.
The lawsuit is being handled by the Environmental Enforcement and Environmental Justice (EEEJ) Section within the Division of Law’s Affirmative Civil Enforcement Practice Group, including Assistant Attorney General Aaron Kleinbaum, Section Chief Gary Wolf, Assistant Section Chief Jessica Palmer, and Deputy Attorney General Erin Hodge.