New Jersey officials launched a series of lawsuits Thursday targeting what it called polluters of lower-income and minority communities as part of a new environmental justice initiative.
The eight civil suits were filed by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Three of the suits are centered on sites in Pennsauken, Palmyra, and Camden, and involve poisoned wells, illegal dumping by a recycler said to have mob ties, and a service station from which hundreds of gallons of gasoline seeped into a neighboring tavern’s basement.
“Environmental justice means that everyone, no matter race, ethnicity, color, national origin, or income, deserves to live and work in a healthy and clean environment,” said Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal. “But too often, the same communities suffer the worst environmental problems over and over again but don’t get the support that they need."
Grewal said his office is creating an environmental justice section to be overseen by current staffer Kevin Jespersen, and new attorneys will be hired to staff it.
“For too long the residents of urban areas and other communities have not had their voices heard and have had to bear the burden of disproportionate sources of pollution and the consequent health effects,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe.
The suits were announced during a news conference Thursday at Camden Lutheran Housing, a nonprofit. The news conference was followed by a “listening session” on environmental justice that was open to the public.
In August, the same agencies sued six polluters statewide, including a former Atlantic City fuel company, in a rarely used natural resources damage suit. But officials said this round of suits was different, marking a “first-of-its-kind” statewide action focused on environmental justice.
“We’re going to make sure New Jersey is a national leader on environmental justice,” Grewal added.
The suits also include pollution in Flemington, Newark, Phillipsburg, and Trenton. They seek unspecified damages. Grewal said the amounts had not yet been calculated but would be in the millions.
Here’s a breakdown of the three South Jersey suits:
Six wells owned by Camden City to supply residents with drinking water were shut down by the early 1980s after it was determined that the system serving most of the city was contaminated with poisonous chemicals and heavy metals linked to cancer and other health problems. The state’s lawsuit says the wells were polluted by a nearby facility on Cove Road, no longer in operation, that applied nickel and chromium plating to metals between 1969 and 1981.
That operation discharged waste on soil or in unlined trenches that led to underground septic tanks. The site was placed on the Superfund list in 1998 and the federal Environmental Protection Agency oversaw the cleanup.
The state’s suit seeks damages for the pollution and cleanup money the state paid, and names SL Industries Inc., owner of the property, as a defendant.
Today, an asphalt company is using at least part of the area that once held the plating facility.
The 100-acre Fillit site off Route 73, adjacent to Pennsauken Creek and Palmyra Cove Nature Park, was once a sand and gravel business that also handled yard and leaf waste. The lawsuit contends Fillit destroyed wetlands and brought in illegal solid waste.
In 2012, the site was leased to Jersey Recycling Services LLC to process leaves and vegetation as mulch for the general public. The suit claims the company took in thousands of tons of illegal solid waste, including concrete, asphalt, and contaminated soils. The debris came from construction sites in Philadelphia, Camden, and New Brunswick, state investigators found. The DEP ordered the site cleaned up and assessed penalties, but the owners did not comply, instead abandoning the property in 2014, the suit says.
In 2017, the State Commission of Investigation found that Jersey Recycling Services was run by convicted felon Bradley Sirkin, who had ties to organized crime. The report said the company mixed clean topsoil with contaminated dirt for mulch sold to landscapers, who in turn sold it to the public.
Investigators said Sirkin is related to a member of the Lucchese crime family in New York, and has a relationship with a high-ranking member of the Philadelphia mob. That person was identified in a previous Inquirer article as Joey Merlino.
In a more direct connection with organized crime, bank records reviewed by investigators show that a captain in New York’s Bonanno crime family gave a $50,000 “shareholder loan” to Jersey Recycling Services through a shell company. Sirkin never repaid the loan.
Fillit and Jersey Recycling Services are named as defendants in the state lawsuit, as are Grupo Mundial Balboa Internacional S.A., Messengers of Peace Development Corp., Sirkin as executor of an estate, and James Adkins. The DEP is seeking to force Fillit and JRS to clean up the property, dispose of hazardous materials and restore damaged wetlands. It is also seeking additional penalties.
No one was at the site Thursday to respond to questions about the suit.
In April 1984, gas from Monk’s Amoco, a service station on Broadway, seeped into the basement of a neighboring tavern, and a cleanup was ordered.
The state’s suit contends that gas again seeped into the basement in June 1984, and that Hooper Monk, the service station owner, failed to comply with DEP orders. So the DEP paid for a groundwater recovery system to get rid of 300 gallons of gasoline.
Then, between May 1999 and August 2011, the DEP dug up seven underground gas storage tanks from the Monk’s Amoco property. The state also installed seven monitoring wells. It detected above-acceptable standards for lead, benzene, toluene, and other chemical compounds in the groundwater.
The DEP seeks to recover the cost of the Monk’s Amoco cleanup. Monk is still listed as the owner of the property.
A mechanic at D Champ Auto, which now occupies the property, said Monk was not at the station to comment on the suit.