A legislative panel yesterday launched hearings into a much-criticized settlement that would force Exxon Mobil to pay $225 million to restore more than a thousand acres of land polluted by its former refinery operations in Linden and Bayonne.
Critics of the tentative deal, which is far less than the $8.9 billion the state originally sought, called it a travesty, but those who negotiated it declined to show up — leaving unanswered questions as to how and why it was reached.
The deal struck by the Christie administration and the company has come under intense criticism in the Legislature, from environmentalists and others, for falling far short of what is needed to restore wetlands, marshes, and waterways contaminated by the refineries’ operations dating back to the late 1800s.
A state appeals court already has concluded Exxon Mobil is liable in the case, but the issue of damages has yet to be determined by another court. For critics, the proposed deal amounts to a settlement of pennies on a dollar of what a strong state case could have achieved.
“What has happened in Linden is a travesty,’’ said Linden Mayor Derek Armstead, where the Bayway refinery is located. “It is something that will happen again unless we hold people responsible. I hope and pray the New Jersey Senate and Assembly hold Exxon Mobil accountable.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said it had invited the attorney general and state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin to appear, but both declined, citing the ongoing litigation. Exxon Mobil also did not speak at the hearing, and the company did not return a call for comment.
Gov. Chris Christie has defended the $225 million settlement, saying it is on top of the money Exxon Mobil will pay to clean up the site. That commitment was reached in a 1991 consent decree with the state DEP.
But conservationists said Exxon Mobil only wants to cap the polluted areas rather than excavate the contaminated soil, a plan that will never allow restoration of the marshes, wetlands, and other areas.
“Anyone who thinks ExxonMobil will conduct a comprehensive cleanup is dreaming,’’ said Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper, an organization working to clean up the estuary in the region.
Republicans at the meeting questioned why the state is getting involved in a case still being litigated. They noted the proposed settlement is in line with other natural-resource damage suits to restore ecologically important properties that have been reached in the past by Democratic administrations.
After hearing from opponents, the Assembly Judiciary Committee adopted two bills related to the issue.
One (A-4281), sponsored by McKeon, would prevent the Christie administration from using much of the proposed settlement to balance the state budget — language that already is in the proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. It is identical to a bill already adopted by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.
“Using these funds as a short-term budget fix adds insult to injury,’’ McKeon said. “This bill amends the law so that the bulk of the monies received by environmental lawsuits are reserved for damage restoration.’’
That hasn’t always been the case. The current budget approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature diverted $140 million out of a natural-resources damage suit involving dioxin contamination of the Passaic River to the general budget in the current fiscal year.
The other measure would require a 60-day comment period — instead of 30 days — if the proposal is adopted by the court and proposed by the DEP. Both lawmakers and others said that 30 days is too short for the public to comment on a case that has been litigated for more than a decade.