Contaminated soil from proposed kindergarten sparks legal battle


PATERSON — The Reverend William Bishop, a retired pastor, is facing a $25,000 fine due to contamination on the property where he wanted to open a preschool, a site used as a gas station decades ago.

This outstanding fine is entangled in a convoluted lawsuit Bishop has filed against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and William Morrissey III of Cedar Grove, the man who owned the property for about a decade, years 1980 to 1990s.

As part of the litigation, Morrissey produced invoices from 1987 and 1988 showing that he had spent $6,000 to have an underground gas tank and surrounding contaminated soil removed. Morrissey had the work done in order to build offices on site, according to court records.

Bishop’s attorney, Dennis Cummins Jr., cited those invoices as evidence that the contamination at the gas station had already been resolved, prompting him to suggest that the pollution discovered by the DEP came from another neighboring property. Cummins argued that Bishop should not be fined for contamination prior to his ownership of the land or from elsewhere.

Now the legal battle can get even more complicated.

Cummins is seeking to expand the lawsuit to name as defendants the two entities that owned the property between Morrissey and Bishop – the nonprofit group Community Action for Social Affairs and St. Luke’s Baptist Church – as well as an attorney, Neil Chessen. , and a real estate broker, Linton Gaines, who worked on the sale of the land between St. Luke’s and Bishop.

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In letters filed in New Jersey Superior Court on Monday and Friday, Cummins said he had been reluctant to name other defendants in the lawsuit, but said that would be the only way to resolve the dispute.

“I’ve always been hesitant to bring in a church, a lawyer, and a realtor, but after all, Cummins wrote, it’s necessary for everyone to be a part of this unique situation.”

Cummins said in court papers that Bishop did not have enough money to clean up the contamination and pay the $25,000 fine, which was imposed in March in Paterson City Court. The lawyer requests that the four parties who owned the land for the past four decades join the state in investigating the origin of the contamination.

CASA, St. Luke’s, Chessen and Gaines could not be reached for comment for this story. Morrissey’s lawyer, Christopher Benevento, said his client took responsibility 35 years ago by removing contamination from the gas station.

“Luckily my client kept the documents,” Benevento said of the old invoices. “Paterson didn’t have them anymore.”

The DEP, in its court filings over the past two months, claimed that Bishop should have hired engineers to check for contamination before purchasing the property. In a July 15 letter signed by New Jersey Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin, the state said Cummins was trying to create a “new defense” to the fine by calling for an investigation to determine whether the pollution originated other properties. Platkin objected to “any further delay” in resolving the fine status.

Bishop bought the land from St. Luke’s in 2015 for $500,000, including $340,000 from a mortgage, according to public records. It was the same price St. Luke’s paid in 2010 to buy the land from CASA, which paid Morrissey $274,000 for the property in 1997, real estate records show.

In order to install a kindergarten on the site, Bishop had to obtain the environmental assessment. This study was conducted in 2018 and found “hazardous substances including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes above applicable standards,” according to DEP filings.

Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.

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