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Administration Filed Just One Natural-Resources Damage Claim Before Exxon

Acting attorney general defends proposed settlement, which has generated a whirlwind of controversy

acting Attorney General John Hoffman
Credit: NJTV
Acting Attorney General John Hoffman.

The Christie administration has filed only one natural-resources damage claim against polluters since the governor took office, according to the acting attorney general. The lawsuit, involving a Superfund toxic waste site in South Plainfield, also involves the federal government.

Before Gov. Chris Christie took office, his predecessors, starting with former Gov. Jim McGreevey, filed more than 131 cases trying to get polluters to restore wetlands, marshes, and other natural areas they had damaged.

The issue of natural-resources claims has become a source of controversy ever since it was disclosed that the administration is proposing to settle a decade-long lawsuit against Exxon Mobil for $225 million; it had originally sought $8.9 billion for pollution that damaged natural resources at refineries the company once operated in Linden and Bayonne.

The administration has defended the Exxon settlement as the largest single agreement for natural-resources damages reached by the state. Acting Attorney General John Hoffman told the Assembly Budget Committee yesterday that approximately $40 million to $43 million of the settlement will go to pay for an outside law firm, which litigated the case. That is slightly less than what the Department of Environmental Protection projected.

Hoffman, in his most extensive comments on the Exxon settlement, defended the proposed agreement, noting the that state has recovered more than $350 million in litigation dealing with dioxin contamination in the Passaic River. That money does not include the polluters’ liability to clean up the contamination, he said.

The Exxon settlement also does not absolve the company from cleaning up any pollution at the two refineries, another one in Paulsboro, and other sites covered by the proposed agreement, according to administration officials.

Yet Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) noted that past settlements resulting from natural-resources damage suits have been plowed back into the state budget, rather than restoring lands harmed by the pollution. In the 2015 state fiscal budget, $280 million from those settlements was included, and in the 2016 fiscal budget $110 million, potentially including money from the Exxon settlement, if approved by a judge overseeing the case, McKeon said.

Lawmakers are seeking to cap how much of natural resource damage suits go to plug holes in the state budget through a bill pending in the Legislature. They want the money devoted to restoring natural areas damaged by contamination.

Hoffman said it is not certain the money will be included in the next budget, noting it will depend on what the governor and Legislature decide in formulating a new spending plan for the state.

McKeon also questions why 16 other sites operated by Exxon Mobil were included in the proposed settlement, as well as hundreds of former retail gas stations operated by the company. McKeon is leading a separate legislative inquiry into the tentative deal as chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

“The cost of litigation would exceed the cost of recovery,’’ Hoffman replied. “The potential return would be minimal, if not zero.’

The proposed settlement must be approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection after a 60-day public comment period, and also by the judge presiding over the case. The court already has found Exxon Mobil liable for damages but has not set the amount of damage claims.

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