Harold Simmons' NL Industries Being Sued for Dumping Radioactive Material 70 Years Ago

In the same way that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC once America caught on to the fact that deep-frying things isn't good for you, National Lead -- one of the dozen stocks that comprised the original Dow Jones industrial average -- became simply NL Industries. At some point, it also relocated its from the industrial Northeast to Houston and then, after billionaire Harold Simmons bought it in the 1980s, to Dallas.

Only the company's headquarters made the move. The massive network of lead and chemical plants it operated stayed put, including a now-closed paint manufacturing plant in the town of Sayreville, New Jersey. The company is currently helping the city with a $40 million remediation effort that aims to clear the site of the polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenals and, of course, lead, left behind.

But NL didn't limit its dumping to heavy metals and plastic byproducts. Between 1935 and 1947 -- around the time the company was researching atomic weapons for the U.S. government's war effort -- it also pumped uranium, radium and thorium straight into the Raritan River.

The radiological materials that weren't swept away by the current to the Atlantic mostly settled at the bottom of the river, but only for a brief period. At the same time NL was doing its dumping, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was dredging and widening the Raritan to facilitate shipping.

Heyden Chemical Corp., which was operating a site directly across the river, agreed to let the corps dump some of the dredged sediment on the wetlands that cover two-thirds of its property, little knowing it would be filled with waste that was toxic, even by New Jersey standards.

They didn't figure it out until 2009, when EPEC, the corporate successor to Heyden, which also happens to be headquartered in Texas, began conducting tests. It found the traces of radium, uranium, and thorium and it says it spent $2 million just investigating the extent of the contamination. That's likely a drop in the bucket compared to what it will cost to clean up.

Last year, EPEC sued in federal court in New Jersey, arguing that NL should cover cleanup and related costs. NL, not surprisingly, would rather not. It responded to the lawsuit by reminding the court that it was the corps, not the company, that put the toxic sludge on the wetlands and asking that EPEC's claims be dismissed.

Judge Michael Shipp doesn't buy it, rejecting NL's motion to dismiss:

[T]he fact that a third-party in the form of the Army Corps may have removed the Radiological Materials from the riverbed and onto the EPEC site is irrelevant. NL is strictly liable for damages that result from the discharge of the Radiological Materials into the river. The fact those materials were transported slightly further than NL may have anticipated when they allegedly discharged them into the Raritan River, due to strict liability, does not effect that analysis. Just as the flow of water due to gravity or erosion can transfer hazardous material from a facility onto adjacent land, so too can the actions of a third party.

So, the suit moves forward.

(h/t Courthouse News)

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson