Law Firm Agrees to Lower Fees for Area Towns Involved in Pollution Lawsuit

The Joint Meeting of Essex and Union Counties oversees operation of this wastewater treatment plant in Elizabeth.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ – The law firm that sought up to $4.5 million to represent the 11 towns that own and operate a wastewater treatment plant in Elizabeth in the first phase of a massive pollution lawsuit has agreed to lower fees, according to a South Orange Village trustee.

Trustee Howard Levison represents the village on the Joint Meeting of Essex and Union Counties. That entity operates the treatment plant. The JMEUC and its towns have been named as third-party defendants in a lawsuit brought by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“(The law firm has) agreed to a preliminary fee structure – we will formalize it next week – which is more appropriate to a municipal fee structure than what they had originally proposed,” Levison said after the May 24 meeting of the JMEUC in Maplewood.

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That agreement was reached in a nearly two-hour closed session of the Joint Meeting. Also in closed session, the JMEUC appointed a five-member committee that will oversee the law firm of Genova, Burns and Giantomasi in the case of DEP v Occidental Chemical Corp., according to Levison.

Levison and West Orange Council President Patty Spango were among those selected to serve on the committee. Other members include Mayor Joseph Florio, Union; 3rd Ward Councilman Ted Green, East Orange; and Council President Angela Garretson, Hillside.

Through December, Levison said, Genova, Burns and Giantomasi will provide legal counsel in the lawsuit under its contract with the JMEUC, which was approved April 1. It called for transferring the contract from Trenk, DiPasquale et al., with payment of $150,000 for general services.

The JMEUC committee will be responsible for “giving direction to the Joint Meeting’s counsel and reviewing proposals for the Joint Meeting’s counsel in how to proceed in various areas of litigation,” Levison said. “We are in the process of negotiating price.”

In addition, part of the committee will look for legislative relief, according to Levison. The 85 municipalities and public entities that have been named as third-party defendants want the Legislature to exempt municipalities from the lawsuit.

Lawsuit background

The DEP filed a lawsuit in 2005 against nine chemical companies and their predecessors claiming they discharged toxic chemicals from Newark’s Diamond Alkali Plant. That plant closed in 1969.

Occidental Chemical bought Diamond Alkali in 1988, and the courts ruled it is partly liable for the cleanup of the Passaic River and Newark Bay, along with Maxus Energy and Tierra Solutions.

The cost of litigation is estimated at $5 billion. So far more than 200 law firms are involved (see related story).

In addition to the five municipalities represented on the litigation oversight committee, the members of the Joint Meeting include Irvington, Maplewood, Millburn, Newark, Roselle Park and Summit. In addition, Elizabeth, Livingston, Orange and New Providence are served by the wastewater treatment plant.

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