PPG Industries will be required to clean up a carcinogen at a New Jersey site to levels four times more stringent than state standards, under a settlement reached yesterday with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and community groups.
The NRDC said the settlement will force PPG to remove 700,000 tons of hexavalent chromium (Cr VI), representing 50 years of waste, from a nearly 17-acre, densely populated area of Jersey City. The clean-up will start this spring, should take about five years, and will cost the $13.4 billion coatings and specialty products company about $600 million, the NRDC said.
But PPG said clean-up at the site has already begun. It said the settlement is consistent with already-agreed plans, and will have no effect on the timetable or costs of the cleanup. The $600 million figure is not consistent with PPG estimates, the company said.
“The settlement announced today is very much in line with our agreement with the city and state to dig up and remove chrome waste at the Garfield Avenue and adjacent sites,” said John Richter, PPG’s vice president of environment, health and safety. PPG said it has cleaned up 47 sites and is responsible for 20 more throughout Hudson County, where Jersey City is located.
The settlement ensures the cleanup will reduce chromium levels to 5 parts per million (ppm), much more stringent than the state’s enforceable limit of 20 ppm, NRDC said. The organization said the state standards are insufficient to protect public health.
“After decades of foot dragging, we now know this cleanup is going to happen, and it’s going to happen right,” NRDC senior attorney Nancy Marks said. “What could have been a Swiss cheese approach to the cleanup is now a comprehensive removal of the contamination – no holes to be found.”
Hexavalent chromium was made famous by the 2000 film Erin Brockovitch, based on the real-life legal battle between Pacific Gas & Electric and residents of Hinkley, Calif. In 1996, the utility paid out $333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents.
Human studies have clearly established that inhaling hexavalent chromium increases the risk of lung cancer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said. Chronic exposure to the chemical has resulted in bronchitis, pneumonia, decreased pulmonary function, perforations and ulcerations of the septum, and other respiratory effects, the agency sayas.
A study found that Jersey City residents living closer to sites contaminated with CR VI have significantly higher incidence of lung cancer than those who live further away, NRDC said.
In the PPG case, manufacturing waste containing hexavalent chromium was either retained at PPG’s former plant location on Garfield Avenue in Jersey City or was used as fill at constructions sites, the company said. The clean-up mandated by the settlement covers the Garfield Avenue chromium plant, surrounding area and groundwater, the NRDC said.
The NRDC said PPG itself sampled soil and groundwater and reported elevated levels of the chemical – some more than 2,500 times the state clean-up standard – throughout the Garfield Avenue site. The NRDC also said tests have shown chromium contamination migrating off the site to surrounding areas, including inside homes and schools, and said it will continue to spread until the site is cleaned up.
But PPG said, “Control measures are in place that prevent exposure to chrome residue at the 20 sites [where clean up has not been completed] until final cleanups, if needed, begin. These measures are inspected on a regular basis by PPG and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).”
Yesterday’s settlement ends a citizen’s lawsuit filed in federal court by the NRDC, Interfaith Community Organization (ICO) and GRACO Community Organization, based on a call for clean-up that dates back to the early 1980s. In 1990, PPG reached an agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), requiring PPG to clean up dozens of sites that the DEP believed they had contaminated, NRDC said. The organization said it filed its lawsuit in federal district court in 2009 because PPG had failed to clean up the chromium and the DEP had failed to enforce a clean-up.
In June 2009, PPG, the DEP and Jersey City reached a settlement in state court litigation that established a process for the cleanup of PPG’s chromium-contaminated sites. PPG said it began cleanup activities last July at the Garfield Avenue Site, hauling away more than 60,000 tons of material, including some of the most highly contaminated waste. The three parties last November agreed to another cleanup plan, requiring the company to excavate and remove all sources of chromate waste to a maximum depth of 35 feet, or until the excavation reaches a natural barrier of peat-like material known as a meadow mat, the company said.
“We believe the cleanup remedy we reached last year in state court with the city and state will satisfy both the requirements of NJDEP and this settlement,” Richter said.
He added that this year PPG expects to conduct additional investigations, cleanup activities or both, at other sites that are not part of the federal lawsuit.