Sludge bill advances

TRENTON –The Senate Environment and Energy Committee released a bill Thursday dealing with categorization of sewage and sludge in light of the Passaic River pollution case. It passed 3-0-2.

S2094 clarifies that certain types of sewage and sludge do not constitute hazardous substances under the “Spill Compensation and Control Act,” thus closing a loophole and saving towns millions of dollars, according to supporters.

Sponsor Sen. Teresa Ruiz said that this bill is not a blank check for polluters, it is to prevent unintended consequences of taxpayers who have to foot the bill improperly due to loopholes in the law.

Attorneys and representatives from South Orange, Garfield, and other towns testified about the ongoing Passaic River pollution litigation and told the committee that about 70 municipalities will have to continue to spend millions of dollars in this matter, and that the bill will clarify the intent of the spill act.

Communities up and down the river were pulled in as defendants in this case and should not have been, the panel was told. The towns are being held liable for what some entity dumps in its sewer or water system, the committee was told.

Earlier this week, some companies involved in this complex, decades-old case agreed with the state to pay $130 million to settle some claims that include dumping of dioxin and other contaminants.

Sen. Jennifer Beck questioned whether this committee legally can act while the whole matter is still in litigation. Chair Sen. Bob Smith pointed out that future such cases would be helped by this bill regardless of how the Passaic River situation plays out.

An unlikely coalition of business and environmental groups opposed the bill, including the N.J. Chemistry Council, N.J. Business and Industry Association, state Chamber of Commerce, N.J. Environmental Federation and the Sierra Club.

Despite the noble purpose of the bill, it is way too broad, the Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel said.  Sludge itself can contain many types of toxic chemicals, he said. Helping towns is one thing, but this bill would remove the enforcement “hammer’’ too much, he told the panel.

“You are taking a howitzer to go after a mosquito with this,’’ he said.

And Steve Picco, a former Department of Environmental Protection assistant commissioner who helped in the writing of the spill act, seconded the idea of the bill being too broad.  He said not all of the towns drawn into the litigation should have been, but some of the towns deserved to be.

Sen. Christopher Bateman abstained because his law firm is involved in the litigation. Beck abstained over her concerns regarding its legality and other issues.

A related bill also advanced.

S2322, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, would prohibit any person from bringing an action for contribution against a local unit for cleanup and removal costs associated with a discharge of a hazardous substance. 

In effect, the bill bars an alleged “major’’ polluter in a case from drawing in other suspected third-party smaller polluters in order to spread out the damages and reduce the amount of money the major polluter would have to pay.

This also passed 3-0-2, with the Republicans abstaining and the Democrats supporting it while saying they also had concerns about the bills.

Earlier story:

Businesses to pay $130M to settle some pollution claims Sludge bill advances