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Billion-dollar claim: Did DuPont pollute Carneys Point, N.J., 'worse than Exxon Valdez did to Alaska?'

New Jersey towns seeks Chambers Works clean-up

Like a spouse abandoned after a long marriage, Carneys Point, N.J., has sued the DuPont Co., demanding the Wilmington chemical giant pay more than $1 billion to clean up the Chambers Works, a town-sized chemical complex on the Delaware River that DuPont opened as an ammunition factory in 1892 and last year transferred to its spin-off company, Chemours.

The suit was filed Dec. 12 by Carneys Point Mayor Joseph F. Racite, a retired Carneys Point policeman, fire-extinguisher distributor and Baptist minister who is also vice chairman of the county sewer authority.

His office referred questions to its lead lawyer for the case, Albert I. Telsey of Newark, N.J., who grew up near Chambers Works in Salem, N.J.

Back then, Telsey told me, DuPont was the respected major corporate employer in Salem County, a partly rural wedge of New Jersey across the Delaware from DuPont headquarters in Wilmington.

But in spinning off Chambers Works and other old, polluted plants, DuPont "cut and ran," Telsey added.

Carneys Point officials now fear the public will be stuck with cleanup costs after DuPont disappears next year in its scheduled merger with Dow Chemical Co.

DuPont says it's already done what the law requires to clean up old pollution, and Chemours is mopping up as the new owner.

"Chemours is currently operating under a U.S. EPA environmental permit, with New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection oversight, to remediate the Chambers Works site," DuPont spokesman Dan Turner told me.

"We have always taken very seriously our commitments to the health, safety and well-being of our employees and communities in which we operate," Turner added. "We are reviewing the allegations in the suit."

Citing state and company data, the suit notes Chambers Works has been polluted with "mercury, benzene, acids, sodium hydroxide, aluminum chloride, ammonia, sodium, sulfur, benzene, nitrogenzene, nitrooluene, chlorobenzene, methyl ammonia and ethyl chloride, among others."

The company has also dumped waste including slag, sludge, dust, and "millions of gallons" of contaminated water into ponds and "unlined landfills" that drained into the Delaware and the Salem Canal.

That included dangerous compounds such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a carcinogenic byproduct of DuPont's former production of Teflon, the popular non-stick coating.

Carneys Point sued a week before an Ohio jury ordered Chemours to pay at least $2 million to a truck driver whose lawyers traced his testicular cancer to cancer-causing PFOAs from a DuPont plant there. It was the third time Ohio jurors had found DuPont liable for injuries linked to PFOAs.

Chemours shares, which had been trading at an alltime high earlier this month, slipped on fears that its pollution and legal expenses may be higher than expected, as other PFOA cases go to trial.

Though it has taken over assets and debts of a group of former DuPont businesses, Chemours has said DuPont may be responsible for additional expenses.

Telsey says New Jersey's Industrial Site Recovery Act, which he invokes in the lawsuit, has been used to persuade other chemical companies to clean up plants when they are sold or shut down, but not on the scale attempted in Carneys Point.

Citing New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection data, the suit contends "it will cost over $1 billion to clean up the site and the surrounding area," and could take 1,000 years at the recent rate of activity there.

Under the Industrial Site Recovery Act, Carneys Point contends that DuPont should have cleaned up Carneys Point when it turned the site over to Chemours.

The township blames DuPont and a company employee who filed environmental paperwork, with failing to follow the law in setting aside funds to ensure a thorough clean-up.

Having "released over 100 million pounds of hazardous waste" over the years, the suit calls Chambers Works "a disaster worse than the Exxon Valdez," the infamous Alaska oil spill that generated over $1 billion in penalties.