After an acrimonious debate, the Senate yesterday passed a resolution strictly along party lines urging the rejection of a controversial settlement in a $8.9 billion lawsuit against the Exxon Mobil Corp. to resolve an 11-year-old lawsuit filed against the company.
The resolution (SCR-158), sponsored by some of the most powerful lawmakers in the Senate, seeks to ramp up the stakes in a proposed $225 million settlement reached by the Christie administration with the company to restore marshes, wetlands, and other areas polluted by its actions at two former refineries in Linden and Bayonne.
Typically legislative resolutions carry very little weight — especially when they oppose an incumbent administration’s actions — but some senators argued it might help influence a Superior Court judge presiding over the case, who has yet to rule on the proposed settlement.
For Republicans, that was primarily the issue. None of the GOP senators voted against the resolution, but all abstained when calls to withdraw the measure were ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate. It passed 24-0.
“We’re interfering in a case that is being heard by a judge,’’ said Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean). “Once we break the tradition of not interfering in a case, where does it stop?’’
The proposed deal has become a big political issue for Democrats, ever since the projected settlement was disclosed in the New York Times earlier this month. With 1,500 acres of marshes, wetlands, and waterways contaminated by more than a century of pollution, much of the $8.9 billion was sought to restore those areas.
The Christie administration argued that the $225 million in the proposed settlement is on top of money Exxon would have to spend to clean up contamination on the site. But lawmakers noted the giant oil company is already obligated to deal with those problems under a 1991 administrative consent order signed with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“Plain and simple, this Exxon deal stinks,’’ said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who grew up near the refinery operated by the company in Linden. Referring to the billions of dollars the state sought to restore natural resources in the area, Lesniak said he could not say for certain it was the right amount, but $225 million is certainly not enough.
Senate leaders have said they will go to court, if necessary, to block the settlement. If approved by the court, the state DEP will publish the deal in the New Jersey Register — a publication that outlines proposed rules for the agency — and accept public comments on the settlement.
Beyond the controversy over the merits of the proposed deal are concerns from environmentalists and lawmakers whether the money would be diverted to balance the state budget — as has been done in the past with another natural-resources damage suit.
In the current budget, $140 million of a settlement involving contamination of the Passaic River with dioxin could be used to plug any budget gaps. The next state budget proposed by the Christie administration includes similar language.
Under a bill (S-2791) also approved by the Senate yesterday, at least half of the $140 million from the settlement in the Passaic River case would go to environmental purposes.