Nine residents sue Sherwin-Williams over South Jersey Superfund sites

A group of nine residents or former residents of a small South Jersey town, some of whom have children with cancer, filed a class action suit this week against the Sherwin-Williams paint company over a decades-old Superfund site that remains highly contaminated.

One family involved in the suit has a daughter diagnosed with leukemia, and another has a daughter diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer that begins in nerve tissue, most commonly in the adrenal glands.

The civil suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Camden, accuses Sherwin-Williams of negligence and fraud, saying the company never formally notified the residents of Gibbsboro of the extent of contamination, and instead assured them there were no real health risks.

Mike Conway, a spokesman for the Sherwin-Williams Co., said it had “just received the complaint and has no comment at this time.”

Although the site has long been the subject of news articles, it wasn’t until a meeting held this month by the Environmental Protection Agency that those suing “truly became aware of the delayed and/or nonexistent cleanup efforts and that the contaminated commercial and residential property they have been occupying had higher levels” of hazardous waste than they had been told of, the suit states.

Potentially 1,000 or more current or former Gibbsboro residents could join the action, according to the suit filed by Haddonfield attorney Craig Mitnick. The suit seeks unspecified damages and medical monitoring for those involved.

“It’s my firm belief that this area is clustered with cancer patients,” Mitnick said Friday. “Since this was filed, my phone has been inundated with residents of Gibbsboro or those who lived there. I have probably 30 in the last 40 hours that have called to say they have developed cancer, or have a relative who died of cancer.”

At issue is a complex of three Superfund sites that were used for  parts of the paint and varnish manufacturing process stretching back to the 19th century: The Sherwin Williams/Hilliards Creek, United States Avenue Burn, and Route 561 Dump sites — collectively known as the Sherwin-Williams sites.

Sherwin-Williams used the sites from the 1930s until 1978, when the facilities were shuttered. In 1981, developer Robert Scarborough turned the manufacturing site into a business complex known as the Paint Works Corporate Center and later sold it.

Over the years, various toxic chemicals including barium, lead, arsenic, phenol, benzene, toluene and others were detected at the sites or in groundwater. At the Burn site, for example, paint wastes and solvents were dumped or poured onto the ground and burned. The process contaminated soils, sediments, groundwater and surface water with hazardous chemicals.

Gibbsboro is about 2.2 square miles with 810 homes, about half of which are within a mile of the center of the Sherwin-Williams sites, according to the suit.

It wasn’t until July that the EPA announced it had a proposal to clean up lead and arsenic at the United States Avenue Burn site. The agency is taking public comment on the proposal until Sept. 17.  A long-term cleanup process is still unfolding at the two other sites, although some preliminary work such as fencing, capping and sludge removal has been conducted.

The August meeting attended by the residents who learned of the extent of the contamination was part of the proposal process.

“To date, there has never been a cancer assessment, community or otherwise, for the residents of Gibbsboro,” the lawsuit states. “However, upon information and belief, cancer continues to threaten the lives of so many residents and others spending substantial periods of time in the area.”

The suit alleges that Sherwin-Williams had been aware for many years before the 1978 closing that surrounding residential, commercial and recreational areas “were highly contaminated” because of the manufacturing process.

Chemicals migrated from the core Sherwin-Williams sites into the community, including a lake and creek, the suit alleges. People bought and own properties within those areas, but were not aware of the contamination, it says. Deed notices should have been standard, the suit says.

“Defendant Sherwin-Williams has contaminated both public and private property … inadequately addressed the contamination they caused, and failed to warn plaintiffs and the public of the contamination it knew existed,” it states.