For the second time this spring, the Christie administration has come under criticism for not being aggressive enough in pursuing natural-resources damage suits against corporate polluters.
During a budget hearing last week on the Department of Environmental Protection’s spending plan for the next fiscal year, Commissioner Bob Martin said the state is focusing its efforts on recovering money for harm done to environmentally sensitive areas from lawsuits filed in the past, of which there is a backlog.
The answer failed to satisfy Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex). “We are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table that the people of New Jersey deserve,’’ Smith told Martin.
Last month, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) questioned the acting state treasurer over why the state is not expecting any settlement money from pollution cases, some of which have been used to plug budget gaps in the past.
The issue is controversial because environmentalists and some lawmakers are unhappy those funds are being used to balance the state budget instead of restoring wetlands, waterways, and other natural areas damaged by pollution spills.
One pollution case involving ExxonMobil ended up in court, where litigation is still pending. The case primarily involved contamination at two refineries once owned by the company in Linden and Bayonne, as well as more than 1,500 acres of marshes, wetlands, and other areas. The state settled the case for $225 million, when it originally sought $8.9 billion from the company, prompting environmentalists and a state senator to challenge the settlement.
The administration has repeatedly defended its record in bringing polluters to settle longstanding cases, noting it has secured $174 million in settlements, compared with $50 million collected by prior administrations. The money from ExxonMobil is not included in those amounts.
Smith wondered why new lawsuits have been not filed against companies that have been involved in pollution cases, mentioning two federal Superfund sites in particular — White Chemical in Newark and a site in Ringwood.
“These are major polluters,’’ Smith said. “Every day that goes by increases the chance they will go belly up.’’
He asked Martin whether the state has adopted a policy of not filing new natural-resources damage claims.
“No, not at all,’’ Martin replied, but he noted that just filing a claim will not result in the state being successful in securing the money it seeks. When the ExxonMobil cases settlement was announced, one reason cited for the lower settlement was that rulings in the case had made it unlikely the state would recoup the original sum it sought, according to state officials.