Toms River sues to overturn toxic waste settlement where childhood cancer cases rose
TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — A Jersey Shore town where childhood cancer cases rose is trying to overturn a settlement between the state and the corporate successor to the company that dumped toxic waste into the water and ground for decades, turning part of the community into one of America's worst pollution cleanup sites.
Toms River and the environmental group Save Barnegat Bay are suing in state appellate court to overturn a settlement reached in August between the state and German chemical company BASF over decades of environmental damage in and around the former Ciba-Geigy chemical plant.
That location, along a lazy river leading into Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, remains one of the nation's most notorious pollution sites, included on the list of ongoing cleanups being done under the federal Superfund law to tackle the worst such cases.
BASF is the corporate successor to Ciba-Geigy.
The town and the group called the settlement “woefully inadequate,” saying restoration projects should be undertaken throughout Toms River and nearby communities. Although it is slowly shrinking, a plume of contaminated water remains beneath the ground in parts of Toms River, and federal authorities can give no estimate of when the cleanup, which began in the 1990s, will be completed.
“The sweetheart deal that NJDEP made with BASF is woefully inadequate and does not compensate the people of Toms River and Ocean County for the damage that has been done to our environment by the corporate polluters,” said Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill, Jr.
The appeal was filed Sept. 28 and announced by the plaintiffs Tuesday night.
The settlement with BASF includes a $500,000 cash payment from the company, adds another 50 acres of company-controlled land to a conservation and public access plan, and obligates BASF to maintain nine restoration projects for 20 years. The company must also restore wetlands and grassy areas; create walking trails, boardwalks and an elevated viewing platform; and build an environmental education center.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which declined comment Wednesday, previously said the settlement is designed to preserve approximately 1,050 acres of the former industrial site onto which Ciba-Geigy dumped toxic chemicals from dye-making and other operations. It is designed to protect groundwater in perpetuity and compensate the public for the damage to that resource.
Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corp., which had been the town’s largest employer, flushed chemicals into the Toms River and the Atlantic Ocean, and buried 47,000 drums of toxic waste in the ground. This created a plume of polluted water that has spread beyond the site into residential neighborhoods.
The state health department found that 87 children in Toms River, which was then known as Dover Township, had been diagnosed with cancer from 1979 through 1995. A study determined the rates of childhood cancers and leukemia in girls in Toms River “were significantly elevated when compared to state rates.” No similar rates were found for boys.
The study did not explicitly blame the increase on Ciba-Geigy's dumping, but the company and two others paid $13.2 million to 69 families whose children were diagnosed with cancer.
Britta Forsberg, executive director of Save Barnegat Bay, said she wants to either overturn the state's settlement with BASF in its entirety, or force changes to it requiring remediation projects beyond those planned for the 1,250-acre site.
“We feel like our community deserves much more,” she said.
Ciba-Geigy, which was charged criminally, paid millions of dollars in fines and penalties on top of the $300 million it and its successors have paid so far to clean up the site.
BASF, which took over the site in 2010, said it is committed to the settlement.
“We look forward to preserving the land, implementing the planned environmental projects and opening new possibilities to encourage recreation, learning and community engagement at the site for decades to come,” spokesperson Molly Birman said in a statement.