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Op-Ed: The Biggest Environmental Sellout in the History of New Jersey

Despite what the administration claims, ExxonMobil isn’t a settlement -- it’s a travesty

jeff tittel
Jeff Tittel, director, Sierra Club of New Jersey

The public is outraged by the dirty deal between Exxon and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection that was rubber-stamped by Judge Hogan. Even more outrageous is now the Christie administration is trying to spin the biggest environmental sellout in state history as a “fair” deal! What makes this even worse is that almost no money from this settlement will go toward environmental purposes. The state, after working on this settlement for years, has given away billions of dollars from the people of New Jersey. Out of the $225 million settlement: $50 million will go toward legal fees and $175 million will go to the general fund. That means no money is left for restoration or the environment. This settlement is a shameful manipulation of the judicial system.

By settling for $225 million, the NJ DEP and ExxonMobil have agreed to avoid cleaning up years of Exxon’s pollution at three refineries, over 800 gas stations, and 15 additional sites across the state. The money was for natural-resource damages estimated at $8.9 billion alone at the two refineries. It was supposed to account for the cost of restoring more than 1,500 acres of wetlands that were contaminated by oil spills. The state was winning this case all along and it makes no sense to settle. Not only is the settlement a complete giveaway to the environment, but it hurts the taxpayers.

Christie’s trying to justify the unjustifiable. He believes the ruling “responds to the best interests of the people and the state of New Jersey.” However, these natural resources are held in the public trust and this settlement violates that trust. Under New Jersey law, the public is to be compensated for the loss of those public resources, but now they no longer are. Instead of protecting the environment and the taxpayers, the Christie administration wants to protect Exxon. Exxon one time broke a record making over $40 billion in one quarter. I guess the Christie administration wants them to break that record at the expense of New Jersey taxpayers.

We believe this settlement violates the Spill Act and the public trust doctrine and sells out natural-resource damages. Based on the violations to the Spill Act alone the Judge should have blocked this from going forward. Under the new deal, Exxon does not have to clean up the site to the extent that they had to before. That is a difference between site restoration and remediation. Under the original court case, Exxon would have had to restore the site to its original conditions before the spill. Exxon was supposed to remove all the oil and chemicals and then restore the wetlands to the state. Now, the settlement lets Exxon off the hook.

The settlement clearly violates the Spill Act because it requires cleanups to include restoration and does not include a timely cleanup. In addition, the settlement denied the public right to comment on the 15 additional sites added to the case. The Christie administration calls this the largest “settlement” in history, but it’s really the largest sellout in state history.

We have DEP documents showing that the DEP has substantial information on many of these sites. However, the DEP has been deliberately withholding that information. The settlement now includes additional industrial sites in Paulsboro, Flemington, and Pennington oil depots; Edison Research Lab and Linden oil depot; and many other contaminated sites around New Jersey. The Paulsboro refinery is a 950-acre site that has contaminated wetlands and tidal marshes and cleanup there alone could cost billions. There was a 135,000-gallon oil spill and nine additional spills, as well contaminating 63 acres of the aquifer and billions of gallons of groundwater. In our own files we’ve found information on two gas stations, the Linden Exxon lab, and the Paulsboro Exxon Lube site. The point is the DEP doesn’t want this information out there and the public to know how dirty this deal really is.

We are going to continue to fight this outrageous giveaway; the people of New Jersey deserve to be properly compensated. This is the biggest corporate tax subsidy in state history. This settlement is costing the taxpayers billions of dollars and leaving hazardous contaminants in New Jersey. The DEP is withholding important information and the judge should have realized that they aren’t being truthful. The Christie administration has completely ignored the public outcry and the extent of the pollution from these sites. This isn’t a settlement; it’s a sellout. We’re going to keep fighting. The New Jersey Sierra Club and other groups are appealing the judge’s decision that would uphold the sellout-settlement. We cannot let this sellout stand!

Jeff Tittel is the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

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