ATLANTIC CITY — South Jersey Gas and three other firms that formerly used or owned the old Deull Fuel Co. site are seeking to dismiss part of a lawsuit brought by the state over pollution created at the now-defunct manufactured gas plant decades ago.
In court on Friday, attorneys for South Jersey Gas argued the company cannot be liable under a trespassing claim for hazardous chemicals at the plant that migrated into a nearby channel, the Beach Thorofare, because it is a public waterway.
The gas company, which has been remediating parts of the North Georgia Avenue site, contends it was working with the state to resolve environmental issues there for years before the Office of the Attorney General filed its lawsuit in 2018. Over the past two years, South Jersey Gas has removed three buildings and thousands of tons of polluted soil.
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"We have been working very closely and cooperatively with the DEP," said Chris Gibson, representing South Jersey Gas.
South Jersey Gas acquired the property then conveyed it to Verizon in the 1960s.
Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez suggested the Department of Environmental Protection go to mediation with the firms named in the complaint, including Deull Fuel Co., South Jersey Gas, Verizon and Pennsauken-based McAllister Fuels, rather than continue what could become a long, costly legal battle.
“Is there a benefit for the parties to enter into some type of mediation? Is it something that should be explored?” Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez asked.
The DEP has been pushing for the site's cleanup since the agency received reports of fuel oil being dumped there 40 years ago. For a century, the facility produced gas from oil and coal.
The plant’s former owner, John Deull, acknowledged in 1986 that oil discharges occurred at the lots he owned, according to the suit. Chemicals entered the ground and into the water, according to the DEP.
Contaminants at the site include benzene, arsenic, cyanide and lead, which are known to cause blood disorders and other health problems.
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“There have been discharges on those properties, but they haven’t remained on those properties,” said state attorney Thomas Lihan. “They’ve migrated to various places around the water.”
The state wants a complete cleanup of the site and public restitution.
Monetary damages the state is seeking haven’t been calculated. Gibson said the case cannot be resolved until the scope of the environmental harm is determined.
“The scope, dollar amount is completely unknown at this point,” Gibson said. “Until that remediation process is done, it seems a little bit difficult to talk about how much you need to restore.”
Mendez will issue his ruling on the motion for dismissal within the next 15 days.
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Meanwhile, Deull Fuel Co. and South Jersey Gas are involved in a separate dispute about which entity is responsible for remediating three lots on the site owned by Deull Fuel.
The land where the former gas plant sat is one of 130 known contaminated sites across the resort town as of March 2017, according to the DEP.
Others are also being cleaned up, such as the Texaco Bulk Storage Facility on Absecon Boulevard being remediated by Chevron. The company acquired Texaco in 2001 and plans to excavate 8,415 cubic yards of impacted soil in the summer.