DEP, Exxon Mobil Move to Block Lesniak, ‘Green’ Groups From Joining Case

According to state agency, letting lawmakers and environmentalists intervene would ‘complicate and lengthen’ natural-resources damage suit

State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak
The proposed settlement with Exxon Mobil to resolve a longstanding pollution case is getting more contentious.

In the past few days, the company and the New Jersey DEP have tried to block environmental groups and a prominent state lawmaker from intervening in the case to resolve the decade-old litigation.

The proposed settlement would require Exxon to pay $225 million arising from a natural-resources damage claim filed against the company by the Department of Environmental Protection, which initially sought $8.9 billion in damages. The tentative agreement has drawn intense criticism from legislators and environmentalists.

Yesterday, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) filed a legal brief with the court, challenging efforts to prevent him from intervening in the case. The court will hear arguments on this issue tomorrow. The proposed settlement must be approved by the court.

“Obviously, the administration and Exxon Mobil don’t want me to intervene in the case because I want to prevent them from settling for a fraction of the damage to the environment,’’ Lesniak said. “The people of New Jersey should not be left out of this case.’’

In its own briefs, the state argued the intervention by the environmental groups and Lesniak is unwarranted and would “serve to complicate and lengthen an already old and legally complex case.’’

To critics, however, the state is seeking a quick settlement of the case to help burnish next year’s fiscal budget. Only $50 million of the settlement is guaranteed to cover costs of restoring more than a thousand acres of marshes and other land damaged by decades of Exxon Mobil refinery operations in Linden and Bayonne.

In addition, at least $40 million of the proposed settlement will go to an outside law firm hired by the state to litigate the case.

[related]“We’re trying to enter the case because the DEP should be doing the job to represent the people that they are not doing,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of the environmental groups seeking to intervene. “It’s the biggest giveaway in state history.

In addition to the Sierra Club, other groups seeking to intervene include the NY/NJ Baykeeper, Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper, Environment New Jersey, Natural Resources Defense Council, and New Jersey Audubon.

The proposed settlement covers not only the two refineries in Linden and Bayonne, but also one in Paulsboro, as well as 16 other sites once operated by Exxon, and hundreds of retail gas stations.

The Legislature is also considering a resolution (SCR-163) that would prevent the state using money from natural-resources damage suits from being used to fund the general budget. It is uncertain, however, if the measure will win approval in time to get it on the ballot in November as a constitutional amendment.