New Jersey isn't on the hook for part of an $80 million toxic waste cleanup along the Raritan Bay, the state Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
In a 6-1 decision, the high court wrote the state can't be held liable retroactively under a state law passed after the contamination occurred in the early 1970s.
The lawsuit was filed by NL Industries, a company designated in 2014 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the cleanup. NL Industries claimed the state knew lead-contaminated soil was being used to build a seawall in the Laurence Harbor section of Old Bridge Township and owned some of the land.
The contamination predated New Jersey's passage of the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act, which took effect in 1977. A subsequent amendment included a retroactivity provision.
A trial court and a state appeals court rejected New Jersey's request to dismiss the lawsuit. Monday's Supreme Court ruling reversed those decisions.
"The bottom line is that this decision prevents what would have been an improper expansion of the State's liability in environmental matters, and we are gratified that the Court agreed with our position," Attorney General Chris Porrino said in a statement.
The court wrote it couldn't conclude from the legislation or its amendments that it "clearly and unambiguously" intended to impose liability on the state for activities before the law was passed.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Barry Albin wrote that the majority's decision is at odds with the plain language of the law.
Under the majority opinion, "a private party cannot seek contribution from the State when the State has joint responsibility for a pre-Spill Act discharge," he wrote. "That interpretation leads to the absurd result that when the State and a private party are both responsible for a toxic discharge, the private party is on the hook for the entire cleanup cost."
NL Industries has an ongoing lawsuit in federal court that named Old Bridge in Middlesex County, the Army Corps of Engineers and more than two dozen companies it claims contributed to the contamination of the site.
Attorney Christopher Gibson, representing NL Industries, said he's disappointed by the ruling and will consider amending the company's complaint against the state.
"One of the things we've taken somewhat as an article of faith is that anyone who contaminates the land is responsible for its remediation," he said. "I always thought what the Spill Act did was make that equally true if you were a municipality, the New Jersey DEP or if you were a chemical company."
NL Industries alleges in the federal lawsuit that it never dumped material at the site and that the government entities allowed a developer to use contaminated soil trucked from its smelting plant in Perth Amboy by a third party.