Girl Scouts and Others Sue Over Toxic Waste Exposure

Sandy Lovell
New Jersey Law Journal

A Superior Court judge has certified a class action suit that seeks medical monitoring for Gloucester County, New Jersey, residents — including former Girls Scouts — who fear they were poisoned by toxic waste dumped at one of the state’s worst Superfund sites.

The liquid chemical waste dumped at the Lipari Landfill in Mantua seeped through the soil to ground water below, contaminating nearby streams and Alcyon Lake, the location of a day camp used by the Girl Scouts in the 1960s.

Three of the plaintiffs named in the suit, Terry Harman, Pamela Cobb and Holly Linutti are former Girls Scouts who lived in Pitman and attended the camp. They allege that medical problems they experienced — including ovarian cysts, a tumor and infertility — were caused by exposure to toxins.

Superior Court Judge John Holston certified the class on Jan. 27, more than three years after the suit, Wilson v. Haas, L-1375-95, was filed in July 1996. The plaintiff class includes anyone who lived within a two-mile radius of the now-closed site and anyone who had regular contact with these areas since Jan. 1, 1958. Also included are children of women who have been exposed to the contaminated sites.

The number of actual plaintiffs who may be included in the class is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Harris Pogust, a partner with Pensauken’s Sherman, Silverstein, Kohl, Rose & Podolsky. He says he’s received at least 300 phone calls from people claiming they had contact with the contaminated area.

The six-acre tract, named after its late owner, Nick Lipari, of Glassboro, was for years one of New Jersey’s most notorious Superfund sites. It has been found to contain benzene, toluene, vinyl chloride, methylene chloride, chloroform, mercury, lead, cadmium and BCEE, several of which are cancer-causing agents, the complaint alleges. Nonetheless, the contaminated grounds and streams were frequent recreation areas for local residents, especially children, who were more susceptible to exposure to soil contamination by handling the dirt and then placing their hands in their mouths.

“The children probably had the greatest exposure,” Pogust says. “These streams were the streams where all the children played.”

The suit charges that as many as a dozen defendants were responsible for either dumping or transporting chemical waste at the site. One of them, Owens Illinois Inc., is stated to have generated, transported and disposed of 200 gallons of paint thinner containing hazardous substances at the site weekly from 1958 to 1970. Another, Rohm & Haas Company Inc., is alleged to have sent 46,000, 55-gallon drums of chemicals to the site between 1968 and 1969.

The defendants in the suit aren’t denying the contamination, but they dispute that it caused anyone injury. “We don’t believe that the suit has merit because we don’t believe that anybody has been injured,” says Owens Illinois’s Glenn Callahan, a partner in the Cherry Hill office of Newark’s McCarter & English. “There are no injuries at all,” he adds.

The complaint had originally sought personal injury damages for a second class that included anyone who had lived within the two-mile radius of the area since 1958 and “suffered deleterious health effects as a result of exposure to chemical from the site’s emissions.”

A 1997 community health study based on 2,483 completed questionnaires submitted by residents living near the Lipari Landfill, identified several common symptoms. “Some of the findings, such as irritation of the eyes or nose, frequent or severe headaches and respiratory conditions (asthma, bronchitis or emphysema) are consistent with findings in other symptom surveys near toxic waste sites,” stated epidemiologic consultant Richard Clapp in the report.

However, Pogust says he agreed to dismiss the personal injury claims because it would have been difficult to prove the injuries were the result of any particular chemical in most of the cases. The survey did indicate that area residents have inhaled toxic substances, he adds.

Instead, the suit asks for creation of a fund “to defray or reimburse the cost of diagnostic evaluation or medical monitoring of the health of the persons exposed to high or elevated … toxic discharge.” The extent of medical monitoring needed and its cost haven’t been determined.

But Owens Illinois lawyer Callahan argues that even if some illnesses or cancers are eventually detected, “there is no causal connection between any injuries and their exposure.”

The landfill and surrounding streams have since been cleaned at enormous expense, exceeding $100 million, Callahan notes, and several of the defendants, including Owens-Illinois, helped pay for it.

James Pagliaro of Morgan, Lewis & Bickius in Philadelphia, who represents Rohm & Haas, did not return calls seeking comment on the suit.

 

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