November 21, 1999

Families to Split $10 Million in Pollution Case


NEWARK, N.J. -- More than 570 families in Maywood, Lodi and Rochelle Park will split over $10 million from a Bergen County chemical company that was accused of causing a variety of illnesses and cancer-related deaths by polluting soil and groundwater.

Stepan Chemical Company set aside $10.3 million in October after its executives agreed to pay hundreds of homeowners to settle claims that the company polluted their towns, according to court documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The settlement avoided what could have been a three-month court battle in which lawyers were prepared to argue that Stepan Chemical and its former occupant, Maywood Chemical Works, caused pollution that led to at least 43 deaths.

Residents have claimed that they suffered respiratory and neurological disorders as well as emotional stress since learning they could be stricken with potentially fatal illnesses after years of being exposed to mercury and thorium, pollutants derived from the site between 1916 and 1956.

Officials at Stepan Chemical have denied the company was responsible for the pollution, saying the company had inherited problems after taking over the 63-acre Maywood Chemical Works property in 1959.

Officials also said they had been working with authorities to clean up the property and surrounding areas.

Maywood Chemical Works used thorium, a naturally-occurring radioactive metal found in small amounts of rocks, plants, soil, above-ground and underground water, to make mantles for gas lanterns.

Thorium compounds emit a type of radiation similar to uranium.

When Stepan took over the site, it began manufacturing chemicals for the soap, detergent and cosmetic industries.

John O'Brien, Stepan's general manager, and the company's lawyers confirmed a settlement had been reached, but would not reveal its terms, or how the money would be divided among the plaintiffs.

According to court records, at least $375,000 will be given to 75 children, whose settlements have been approved in New Brunswick by Superior Court Judge Marina Corodemus.

The children, who range in age from 6 to 17, will each receive between $5,000 and $10,000.