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South Orange to Fight Legal Fees in Massive Pollution Lawsuit

Amy Kiste Nyberg

Monday, May 21, 2012 • 10:43pm

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The village’s representative on the board that controls the wastewater treatment plant plans to object to a proposal to pay a law firm between $4 million and $4.5 million to defend against a lawsuit brought by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

South Orange Trustee Howard Levison sits on the board of the Joint Meeting of Essex and Union Counties, which owns and owns and operates the Edward P. Decker Secondary Wastewater Treatment Facility located in Elizabeth, according to its website.

The 10 other member municipalities are East Orange, Hillside, Irvington, Maplewood, Millburn, Newark, Roselle Park, Summit, Union and West Orange.

Levison said that under the proposed legal services agreement, the village would be liable for about $200,000 for its share of legal fees. One way to raise money to pay for legal fees would be a special assessment on sewer bills.

According to Levison, the Joint Meeting will need to hire a law firm, but he said that the “fee structure is not in compliance” with fees normally charged to municipalities. He said he hopes at least five other representatives will join him in voting against the proposal.

The next meeting of the Joint Meeting is 4 p.m. Thursday, May 24 in the conference room of the Maplewood Municipal Building.

Lawsuit background

South Orange is among more than 85 municipalities and public entities that have been named in a lawsuit originally filed in December 2005 by the DEP, according to a resolution adopted at the Board of Trustees’ meeting May 14. That resolution asked for the Legislature to intervene in the lawsuit.

According to the resolution, NJDEP v Occidental Chemical Corporation et al. claims that chemical companies on Lister Avenue in Newark polluted the Passaic River and Newark Bay. Also named were the Tierra Solutions and Maxus Energy Corp.

The pollution originated with the manufacture of Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War.

The chemical companies, in turn, brought into the lawsuit those municipalities whose treated wastewater is discharged into the Passaic River.

By being named in the lawsuit, the municipalities would have to share in the cost of the investigation into the pollution and cleanup of the river should NJDEP win its lawsuit.

South Orange Village Counsel Steven Rother said such an outcome would “bankrupt” the village and all other municipalities, since the cost could run into the billions. He noted that while some municipalities perhaps deserved to be brought into the lawsuit, South Orange is “a bubble bath defendant” because it has no industrial discharge into the river.

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