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State, Dept. of Environmental Protection v. Ventron Corp.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 10, 1983, Argued ; July 21, 1983, Decided

A-50/51

Opinion

 [*481]  [**154]   This appeal concerns the responsibility of various corporations for the cost of the cleanup and removal of mercury pollution seeping from a forty-acre tract of land into Berry's Creek, a tidal estuary of the Hackensack River that flows through the Meadowlands. The plaintiff is the State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); the primary defendants are Velsicol Chemical Corporation (Velsicol), its former subsidiary, Wood Ridge Chemical Corporation (Wood Ridge), and Ventron Corporation (Ventron), into which Wood Ridge was merged. Other defendants are F.W. Berk and Company, Inc. (Berk), which no longer exists, United States Life Insurance Company, which was dismissed by the lower courts in an unappealed judgment, and Robert M. and Rita W. Wolf (the Wolfs), who purchased part of the polluted property from Ventron.

Beneath its surface, the tract [***3]  is saturated by an estimated 268 tons of toxic waste, primarily mercury. For a stretch of several thousand feet, the concentration of mercury in Berry's Creek is the highest found in fresh water sediments in the world. The waters of the creek are contaminated by the compound methyl mercury, which continues to be released as the mercury interacts with other elements. Due to depleted oxygen levels, fish no  [*482]  longer inhabit Berry's Creek, but are present only when swept in by the tide and, thus, irreversibly toxified.

The contamination at Berry's Creek results from mercury processing operations carried on at the site for almost fifty years. In March, 1976, DEP filed a complaint against Ventron, Wood Ridge, Velsicol, Berk, and the Wolfs, charging them with violating the "New Jersey Water Quality Improvement Act of 1971," N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.1 to -23.10, and N.J.S.A. 23:5-28, and further, with creating or maintaining a nuisance. The defendants cross-claimed against each other; Velsicol and Ventron counterclaimed against DEP, which amended its complaint to allege the violation of the "Spill Compensation and Control [***4]  Act" (Spill Act), N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11 to -23.11z (repealing N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.1 to -23.10), enacted in 1977. The Spill Compensation Fund (Fund), created by the Spill Act to provide funds to abate toxic nuisances, N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.11i, intervened.

Because of issues related to the liability of the Fund, a number of its contributors (Mobil Oil Corporation; Chevron U.S.A., Inc.; Texaco, Inc.; and Exxon Company, U.S.A.) filed a complaint, later consolidated with the present action, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Spill Act not be retroactively applied to discharges of toxic wastes occurring before the effective date of the act.

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94 N.J. 473 *; 468 A.2d 150 **; 1983 N.J. LEXIS 2744 ***; 13 ELR 20837; 19 ERC (BNA) 1505

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, v. VENTRON CORPORATION, A MASSACHUSETTS CORPORATION; WOOD RIDGE CHEMICAL CORPORATION, A NEVADA CORPORATION AND VELSICOL CHEMICAL CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND ROBERT M. WOLF & RITA W. WOLF, HIS WIFE, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND UNITED STATES LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, A NEW YORK CORPORATION AND F.W. BERK AND COMPANY, INC., DEFENDANTS. and ROVIC CONSTRUCTION CO., INC., A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, BY ITS STATUTORY RECEIVER, JOSEPH KEANE, INTERVENOR-PLAINTIFF, v. VENTRON CORPORATION, A MASSACHUSETTS CORPORATION; WOOD RIDGE CHEMICAL CORPORATION, A NEVADA CORPORATION; VELSICOL CHEMICAL CORPORATION AND F.W. BERK & CO., INC., DEFENDANTS. and MOBIL OIL CORPORATION, CHEVRON U.S.A., INC., TEXACO, INC. AND EXXON COMPANY, U.S.A., FOREIGN CORPORATIONS AUTHORIZED TO DO BUSINESS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFFS, v. STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AND STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, SPILL COMPENSATION FUND, DEFENDANTS

Subsequent History:  [***1]  

Related proceeding at Morton Int'l v. General Accident Ins. Co. of Am., 266 N.J. Super. 300, 629 A.2d 895, 1991 N.J. Super. LEXIS 416 (App.Div., 1991)

Prior History: On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 182 N.J. Super. 210 (1982).

State, Dep't of Environmental Protection v. Ventron Corp., 94 N.J. 254, 463 A.2d 893, 1983 N.J. LEXIS 3548 (1983)

Disposition:  The court reversed an attorney fees award to one defendant corporation, but otherwise affirmed the judgment. Defendant corporations caused mercury waste to seep into a nearby creek, so they were properly held liable under the Spill Compensation and Control Act. The Act could be applied retroactively because its provisions provided for such application.

CORE TERMS

mercury, Spill, pollution, Creek, nuisance, tract, hazardous substance, trial court, subsidiary, retroactive, dumping, waters, strict liability, landowner, courts, contamination, damages, removal, costs, abnormally, cleanup, lower court, discharged, counsel fees, plant, impose liability, toxic waste, ultrahazardous, Environmental, containment

Torts, Strict Liability, Abnormally Dangerous Activities, General Overview, Environmental Law, Hazardous Wastes & Toxic Substances, Disposal, Storage & Treatment, Real Property Law, Torts, Inherently Dangerous Activities, Factors in Determining Abnormal Danger, Business & Corporate Compliance, CERCLA & Superfund, Hazardous Substance Superfund, Administrative Proceedings & Litigation, Remedies, Damages, Governments, Legislation, Statutory Remedies & Rights, Toxic Torts, Nuisances, Strict Liability, & Trespasses, Water Quality, Negligence, Defenses, Acts of God, Toxic Substances, Effect & Operation, Amendments, Interpretation, Prospective Operation, Retrospective Operation, Police Powers, Constitutional Law, Congressional Duties & Powers, Bills of Attainder & Ex Post Facto Clause, State & Territorial Governments, Boundaries, Business & Corporate Law, Shareholder Duties & Liabilities, Piercing the Corporate Veil, Civil Procedure, Federal & State Interrelationships, Federal Common Law, Vicarious Liability, Corporations, Subsidiary Corporations, Preliminary Considerations, Enforcement, Cleanup Costs, Purchase & Sale, Duty to Disclose, Fraud & Misrepresentation, Nondisclosure, Costs & Attorney Fees, Types of Damages, Business Torts