Refinery contamination, tax appeal battles lead to legislation

WEST DEPTFORD – A refinery that once was the economic focal point for this Southern New Jersey community is now ground zero for political anger over environmental problems and corporate responsibility.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assemblyman John Burzichelli and Gloucester County Freeholder Director Robert Damminger stood outside the looming storage tanks of the shuttered Sunoco Eagle Point Refinery here to champion legislation that the state lawmakers will introduce Monday to prevent businesses from walking away without paying for necessary clean-ups.

The refinery that at one time was directly or indirectly responsible for more than 2,000 jobs but which is now largely dormant is the genesis for the bills that Sweeney said he, Burzichelli and fellow Third District Assemblywoman Celeste Riley and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald will introduce.

The proposals would mandate that any property tax refund awarded to a business totally or partially decommissioned would go the state Department of Environmental Protection for clean-up; funds left over after that could be returned to the owner.

At one time, this 65-year-old, 1,100-acre property processed more than 150,000 barrels a day of crude. Sunoco acquired it in 2004, and decided to shut it down in 2009. Various tax appeals involving the county and the municipalities could involve more than $20 million, according to estimates by Sweeney and Damminger.

Sweeney and Burzichelli said they can’t just let Sunoco pocket that money and move on.

“Sunoco is a corporate pirate. They raped and pillaged this community,’’ Sweeney said. “They are not going to just walk away.”

Damminger said that the people of this working-class community on the Delaware River put up with a lot down through the years because of the jobs the refinery meant.

And Burzichelli said, “We are industry-friendly legislators,’’ but he said, what Sunoco is doing “exceeds moral bounds,’’ and will leave a “scarred landscape.”

The lawmakers said Sunoco would rather dismantle the plant and sell off infrastructure overseas than see a competing refiner take over this prime riverside real estate. Damminger said that is because Sunoco would have to remediate the site first.

“They want to pick-pocket us as they take our jobs away,’’ Sweeney said.

In addition to this proposed legislation, Sweeney said he also is working on a bill that would require industrial sites with significant pollution to put money in escrow with DEP for clean-up.

These proposed laws will do more than hold Sunoco accountable, according to Damminger. “This will be a shot out to the rest of the polluters in this state,’’ he said.

Calls placed to Sunoco Logistics, the arm of Sunoco that now maintains the site, were not immediately returned.

Refinery contamination, tax appeal battles lead to legislation