Helen Martens joined an emotional audience of long-suffering Pompton Lakes residents — many of them also cancer patients, like Martens — who for decades fought to force chemical giant DuPont to clean up an old munitions plant that allegedly polluted their groundwater with toxic plumes of carcinogens.
“Our lives matter,” Martens said. “Somebody needs to make them accountable.”
New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced on Wednesday that he’s suing DuPont and its affiliate Chemours over that site and three others.
“And we’re sending a strong message to polluters that no matter how big you are, or how powerful you are, or how long you’ve been getting away with contaminating our state’s natural resources, we are going to hold you accountable in court,” Grewal said.
“We’re stunned at the fact that after 40 years, someone is finally listening to the residents of Pompton Lakes,” said Jefferson Harman LaSala, board member of Pompton Lakes Residents for Environmental Integrity.
Grewal announced that New Jersey has filed four Natural Resource Damages lawsuits for contamination allegedly caused by facilities at Pompton Lakes; Parlin; Repauno in Greenwich, Gloucester County; and Chambers Works in Pennsville, Salem County. The Chambers Works and Parlin sites involve a compound called PFAS from 3M, which is also named in the two suits.
“NRD cases are powerful tools — tools that allow us to hold polluters accountable, tools that allow us to force polluters to pay the public for injuries that they have caused to natural resources throughout our state. And we are going to use all the monies that we recover in these cases to restore our environment,” Grewal said.
In a statement, DuPont said, “DuPont has worked under the direct oversight of NJDEP and U.S. EPA for more than two decades on remediating soil, sediment and groundwater both on and offsite at these locations. Fulfilling our remediation responsibilities has been and will continue to be a priority for DuPont.”
Its affiliate Chemours said it’s “ … surprised and disappointed by today’s announcement from the New Jersey Attorney General. Since our creation, Chemours has consistently stepped up to its responsibility and worked cooperatively with state and federal officials regarding any environmental issues at our manufacturing and remediation sites in New Jersey.”
“I’m afraid to live in my home. I live in fear. I do, I live in fear of, ‘What’s that smell? Is that the chemicals coming up?’ You know, I had cancer. I have a lot of problems going on, medically,” Martens said.
In Pompton Lakes, the groundwater carried compounds called TCE and PCE from solvents used to clean machinery at the munitions factory. The compound’s aerosolized under pressure and a chemical vapor infiltrated basements in an estimated 340 homes. DuPont has worked to mitigate the contamination — including installing a groundwater pump and filtration system, and individual units to vent the gas from affected homes.\
“This is hopeful. This is good news,” said 28-year-old Rick Orefice, who used to play down by the lake.
Five years ago, doctors removed his spleen, which had swollen to five pounds — the result of a rare cancer. He wants DuPont to assume responsibility.
“To honestly fix the situation and not drag their feet anymore, to not keep shoving the blame onto a different company and when it fails, that company is the one who takes the blame instead of DuPont,” Orefice said.
“We want a full cleanup. And we want something done for the homeowners. We need buyouts or something to help the homeowners in this town,” Martens said.
The attorney general said Natural Resources Damages don’t include housing buyouts. He won’t say how much money these four lawsuits could involve.