In an escalation of what has already been a bitter fight, some of the state’s most prominent environmental organizations went to court yesterday to block a proposed settlement involving Exxon Mobil and widespread pollution at sites once operated by the company.
In a motion filed in Superior Court, the groups are seeking to intervene in a case in which the state has proposed settling long-standing problems at refineries in Linden and Bayonne and other locations for $225 million, far less than the $8.9 billion that was originally sought in the matter.
The proposed settlement has come under intense criticism from conservationists and lawmakers. They argue that if approved it will not provide enough money to restore thousands of acres of marshes, wetlands, and other areas contaminated by activities at the sites — even if the pollution is cleaned up.
“This is a bad deal for the people of New Jersey, and a steal for this multibillion dollar oil giant,’’ said Margaret Brown, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national organization that is a party to the motion to intervene. “Exxon turned this area into a toxic waste dump for more than century. The big polluter should be held accountable for its dirty legacy and restore the area to its former glory, once and for all.’’
The Christie administration has defended the proposed settlement, saying it does not relieve Exxon Mobil from cleaning up pollution at three refineries (including Paulsboro in South Jersey) and 16 other sites once operated by the company, as well as hundreds of retail gas stations. The Linden and Bayonne refineries are more than a century old.
[related]But critics of the deal say it will not provide enough money to restore the areas contaminated with pollution, the original intent of the lawsuit filed by the state Department of Environmental Protection under so-called natural-resources damage claims.
The agreement could allow the Christie administration to divert $50 million to next year’s state budget, depending on language approved by legislators and the administration. At least $40 million of the settlement would also go to an outside law firm hired to litigate the case.
To prevent that from happening in the future, a measure (SCR-163) is moving through the Legislature would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment this November to bar such diversions. Gov. Chris Christie previously vetoed a bill that would cap how much money from such settlements can be used to help fill holes in the state budget.
“Unfortunately, the state of New Jersey is not fulfilling its responsibility to act as a trustee for our natural resources and is selling out to Exxon Mobil,’’ said Debbie Mans, Baykeeper and executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper. “Our organizations are seeking to enter the case to protect the public’s interest and make sure the impacted communities and natural communities are made whole.’’
Other parties to the litigation include Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper and Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Environment New Jersey, NJ Audubon, and the New Jersey Sierra Club.