Stepping up his criticism of a controversial settlement in a decade-old pollution suit, state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) yesterday vowed to scuttle a reported agreement that would allow Exxon Mobil Corp. to pay only $250 million instead of the $8.9 billion the state originally sought.
In an interview with editors and reporters of NJ Spotlight in Trenton, Sweeney pledged to fight the proposed settlement in any way possible, including through the courts and possibly by overriding language in the current state budget that would allow up to 80 percent of the settlement money in pollution cases to be diverted to the general fund.
“We’re not going to let him do what’s he’s (Gov. Chris Christie’s) done with the Exxon settlement,’’ Sweeney told NJ Spotlight in an interview in the Statehouse. Both the Assembly and Senate are expected to pass resolutions allowing the Legislature to intervene in the case, he said.
The proposed settlement, first disclosed by The New York Times, angered environmentalists, local officials, and other lawmakers who have promised to fight the agreement in court, if necessary. It is fast becoming a major political football.
Also yesterday, the Assembly Judiciary announced it would hold a hearing on the proposed settlement, which has yet to be publicly disclosed, in two weeks.
“The reported settlement is appalling and disturbing,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the committee. “The Christie administration appears more interested in rewarding Exxon Mobil — for whatever reason — than protecting taxpayers and our environment.’’
The case, first filed in 2004 under the administration of then-Gov. Jim McGreevey and pursued by successive administrations, accused Exxon of polluting 1,500 acres of wetlands and marshes in waters surrounding refineries it once operated in Linden and Bayonne.
The lawsuit was filed under a law allowing states to recover damage to natural resources. If successful, the money would be used to restore those resources polluted by the company’s actions.
In the Exxon court case, a judge, a former executive with the state Department of Environmental Protection, already determined that Exxon is liable, but had yet to determine what damages it would pay. Sweeney said the proposed settlement is too small. “I’m not settling for crumbs,’’ he said.
In the state’s current budget, there is language that would allow $140 million from a previous pollution settlement involving dioxin contamination of the Passaic River to be diverted to the general fund — language Sweeney said might be overridden by the Legislature before the next state budget is adopted by the end of June.
Some environmentalists fear the same thing will happen to money from the Exxon settlement, with only $50 million allocated to restoration of natural resources. They also question why the state settled for so little in a case it had spent so long litigating, sending the wrong message to polluters.
“If you violate environmental laws or destroy the environment, the Christie administration will give you a little slap on the wrist,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Others cite the $751,000 Exxon gave to the Republican Governors Association at a time when Christie was chairman of the organization and quite adept at fundraising for GOP candidates.
The proposed settlement still needs to be approved by the judge in the case. If so, the agreement would be subject to a public hearing by the state DEP.
Before then, administration officials, including those from the attorney general’s office, may face questions from lawmakers.
“Taxpayers deserve a public discussion as to how such a decision could be made,’’ said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson). “The Assembly intends to give it to them.’’