Superfund Sites have become a cornerstone in modern environmental law. Following the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980, hundreds of sites tainted with toxic waste, volatile organic compounds, and other dangerous chemicals as a result of the poor environmental regulations of the twentieth century were delegated to be cleaned up by the Federal Government and those responsible for contaminating the lands. The following cases, Love Canal in New York and Ayers vs. the Township of Jackson, New Jersey were two cases that changed the way the EPA, government agencies and other parties involved approached cases of contaminated sites in the future.
Love Canal, New York:
After Love Canal was evacuated, many homes like this one remained abandoned.
Perhaps the most well-known Superfund site was one of the first to make a national appearance in the national spotlight. Love Canal was a housing development in New York State in Niagara Falls and was once a base of operations for the infamous Hooker Chemical Company. Painted as a picturesque community nestled in quite up-state New York, residents were shocked to find that beginning in the early parts of the twentieth century, the land this community was built a top served as a dumping ground for several dangerous and toxic chemicals now known by the EPA to cause cancer and other health problems in humans. In 1976, many years after Hooker Chemical Company stopped dumping on the land, the first claims of health problems arose; the following is a headline form a local newspaper, “NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.–Twenty five years after the Hooker Chemical Company stopped using the Love Canal here as an industrial dump, 82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal.” After hearing the news of the contamination, most were evacuated from the community; few stayed and even fewer returned after years of court battles and clean-ups. Many houses were demolished and today the community remains but a fraction of what it once was. The most important effect of the Love Canal was it put Superfund site on the National Agenda. After this story broke, communities making similar claims sprung up all around the nation and it soon became clear that something had to be done. Along with a similar case in Times Beach, Missouri, Love Canal is credited with spurring the actions that resulted in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act or CERLA which is still the single most piece of legislation used in toxic waste clean-ups and Superfund Site litigation.
Ayers vs. Jackson Township:
One of the world’s largest theme parks, Six Flags: Great Adventure lies just miles away from wells contaminated by toxic compounds dumped by the township.
Appealed from a lower court to the New Jersey Appellate Court in 1985, this case was filed by citizens of Jackson Township, New Jersey as a nuisance case who were outraged by the fact that several wells in the town had become contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Poor safety conditions and lax regulations made it possible for several wells to become contaminated by illegal dumping the township had taken part in. The case was originally dismissed by the Appellate Court who found that, among other things, the residents of Jackson Township had failed to establish that the township had exposure to these contaminates were a significant health risk and that “damages arising from residents’ concern that exposure to toxic wastes might have precipitated illness were damages for “pain and suffering,” and were not recoverable…” Following this ruling, the case was appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court two years later in 1987 where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the residents of Jackson. The Supreme Court made three distinct rulings on the case, deciding:
(1) Damages for residents’ emotional distress based on possible exposure to carcinogens and other toxic chemicals were not recoverable against township;
(2) Residents were entitled to damages for infringement on their “quality of life” caused by absence of potable water for 20 months; and
(3) Residents were entitled to damages for cost of medical surveillance based upon enhanced, although unquantified, risk of disease
Residents of Jackson Township were awarded more than $15,000,000 in order to pay for relocation, medical testing and treatment, and for cleaning up the wells. Among other things, this case was important because it was one of the first cases regarding toxic sites in which a government entity, in this case, Jackson Township was held responsible for the damage to the land and the people. Before this case, government entities were considered to be immune from such litigation. Now, local governments, state governments, even the federal government and federal agencies, the EPA itself can be sued by ordinary citizens now because of Ayers vs. Township of Jackson!
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