Cement firm faces increasing legal costs

Cement firm faces increasing legal costs
Published: 08 August 2005

Five years ago, St Lawrence Cement Co., carved out a desolate patch of the Broadway Marine Terminal and began building a $50 million, highly automated slag cement processing plant in South Jersey Port Corp. The terminal, which employs only 15 people, brings in more tonnage than any other business in the port. Fueled by a building boom, it is expected to pay the Port Corp. close to US$3m this year in fees and rent and another US$1.3m a year toward the cost of building the company a new US$29m pier.

But the initially happy union has evolved over the years into legal battles that have ensnared the company, other businesses in the area and residents concerned about pollution. The cost of legal battles is being calculated in the millions of dollars and is growing rapidly.

At first, residents balked at the 70,000 trucks a year that would be ferrying materials through the neighborhood and the towering piles of slag, a byproduct of steel mills, that would accumulate uncovered outside the plant. The grumbling led to community meetings, demonstrations, lawsuits and an explosion of bad feelings that pitted residents against the state and the entire business community and some individual business owners against each other.

To date, two lawsuits brought by residents are pending in Superior Court against St. Lawrence Cement and dozens of businesses in the area for allegedly posing a health hazard. A third is pending in federal court between South Camden Citizens for Action and the state Department of Environmental Protection for granting operating permits to St. Lawrence in the first place.

Allowing St Lawrence to grind 800,000tpa of imported slag into a cement additive was the last straw, a textbook case of environmental racism, residents said. However, while St Lawrence believes the suits have no merit, it refuses to be the only company in South Camden on the hot seat for air quality. The court complied with its request to include dozens of other businesses, like Camden Iron & Metal, as third party defendants.

"Do they want us to turn the lights off on a US$90m investment and walk away?" asked Morris Smith, spokesman for St. Lawrence. Tension between the business and residential sectors has become so strong, Morris predicted the city will have a difficult time attracting new blood. Responding to the various suits, Morris said, is costing St. Lawrence in excess of US$1m a year in legal fees.

"Clearly there is need for development in this city. But if developers fear litigation at every turn, they’ll go elsewhere. Other cities will get the top-flight businesses and Camden will get the bottom feeders. I believe Community Legal Services, which represents Citizens Action, is working this environmental justice angle to get its 15 minutes of fame."

Olga Pomar, a lawyer for the Camden office of South Jersey Legal Services, no longer believes a court will shut St Lawrence down permanently. However, she is determined to seek concessions from the company to reduce the impact on the neighborhood and to contain its volume of business. She also hopes to make DEP evaluate permits in a more comprehensive manner, rather than as isolated cases. "No single community should be overloaded with nasty businesses. DEP must take this issue more seriously, so no neighborhood - no matter how poor - is discriminated against."

Next month will be a mixed blessing for St. Lawrence. Lawyers for the publicly traded cement company will face Pomar and the DEP in federal court to hammer out a solution. Meanwhile, St Lawrence’s new, US$29m pier at Broadway Terminal is slated to open, reducing truck traffic from 70,000 trucks a year to just 1000.

"St Lawrence will prove itself to be a good project once all these lawsuits get out of the way," said Joseph Balzano, executive director of the South Jersey Port Corp. "They are good businessmen and I’m glad they’re here." Pat Mulligan of the Heart of Camden, a nonprofit that refurbishes houses in South Camden, isn’t so sure. "I think they try to be a good neighbor, but it’s too much to expect us to accept what they do. Their work is loud and dirty and unhealthy. We hope the new pier makes a big difference."  (abstracted from Courier Post, Camden)