Environmentalists Band Together to Overturn ExxonMobil Settlement

Tom Johnson | September 15, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Groups file motion with appellate court, arguing that judge in case made several technical mistakes -- but chance for success seems slim at best

Credit: Joe Loong
ExxonMobil's former Bayway refinery in Linden
Several environmental groups yesterday asked a state appellate court to overturn a settlement the Christie administration reached with ExxonMobil over pollution problems at refineries and other sites once operated by the energy giant.

In a motion filed with the court, the organizations are trying to block a $225 million settlement Exxon agreed to pay to resolve claims involving refineries in Linden and Bayonne, as well as at 16 other sites and 800 gas stations owned by the company.

The case provoked enormous opposition when details of the deal became public, largely because in its initial filings the state has sought $8.9 billion in natural-resources damages from Exxon, stemming from decades of pollution discharges at the two refineries. Some of the money would have been used to restore wetlands, waterways, and other areas harmed by that pollution.

The environmentalists and Sen. Raymond Lesniak (S-Union) had hoped to intervene in the case before Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan, but were denied the opportunity to do so. In an 81-page decision in late August, Hogan called the deal fair, reasonable, and in the public interest.

Opponents vowed to challenge the judge’s decision in court. Typically, however, the courts defer to the expertise of the state government agencies handling disputes — in this case the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The environmentalists plan to argue the judge made several technical missteps in his decision approving the settlement, among them including 16 other Exxon sites and hundreds of retail gas stations that were not part of the original filing.

[related]“We believe that the judge did not follow the law and that’s why we believe the appellate division will overturn this sell-out of a settlement,’’ said Jeff Tittel director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, one of the parties to the suit.

Tittel noted that the judge approved the settlement even though the DEP failed to offer any evidence of potential pollution problems at sites other than the refineries and the hundreds of gas stations.

The Christie administration defended the deal, saying Exxon also will have to pay another $260 million to clean up the sites under a prior agreement with the state DEP reached back in 1991.

Just how much of the $225 million from the natural resources damage will go to restoring wetlands and other areas is uncertain. A chunk of that money will be used to pay an outside law firm hired by the state to litigate the case. Other funds from the settlement may be diverted to plug holes in the state budget — as has happened in the past with other natural-resources settlements.

To environmentalists, the deal fails to make a distinction between cleaning up the site and restoration. The original filing by the state would have required Exxon to restore the site to its original conditions before the spill, removing all the contaminants. With the settlement, the company can just cap the site, they argued.

“We’re appealing because New Jersey can’t afford to let this dirty deal between Gov. (Chris) Christie and ExxonMobil go uncontested as it not only codifies it’s OK to destroy the environment and rip off taxpayers, but provides a road map to encourage and get away with it,’’ said David Pringle, NJ campaign director for Clean Water Action.

Other groups joining the suit include Environment New Jersey and the Delaware Riverkeeper.