The Legislature yesterday took a step toward allowing voters next fall to require funds from environmental lawsuits be used to restore natural resources damaged by polluters.
With little or no debate, both houses easily approved a resolution that would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to prevent money from pollution cases being diverted to plug holes in the state budget, as has been done in the past.
The practice has long frustrated the environmental community and others, irritation that flared up when hundreds of millions of dollars from two huge pollution cases ended up being diverted by the Legislature and Christie administration in the past couple of state budgets.
In the first instance, not even 20 percent of more than $300 million from a series of pollution cases involving dioxin contamination of the Passaic River ended up going to the communities for restoration work.
More recently, most of the $225 million from a pollution case against ExxonMobil for damages to hundreds of acres of marshes and other resources at a pair of refineries once operated by the company is expected to go to balancing the budget or paying off attorneys.
The settlement in the ExxonMobil case, however, is under challenge in court by environmental groups and Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who say it is far from the $8.9 billion that the state originally sought.
“This is something we felt strongly about for a long time,’’ Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the bill’s sponsor said last week trying to drum up support for the measure. “The two most recent diversions made all of us a bit crazy.’’
Yesterday’s vote by both houses was enough to put the resolution (SCR-39) on the ballot this fall, an outcome the proponents had not expected. They anticipated needing to convince the Legislature to readopt the resolution by simple majorities next year and have it before voters next fall.
“In an ideal world, this constitutional amendment would not be needed,’’ said Ed Potosnak, director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “This has been a problem in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Taking that money we find unacceptable.’’
“For too long, we’ve been balancing the budget on the backs of the environment,’’ added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
If voters approve the ballot question, lawmakers will still need to look at the way natural-resources damage cases are litigated and settled, according to Smith. One reason why the state may have settled the ExxonMobil case for less than what it originally sought is that it lacks objective standards for establishing natural resources damages, he said.
Smith hopes to come up with such a standard should the ballot question win approval. Such a standard would likely make it easier to settle such cases and for higher amounts, according to proponents.
In another environmental issue, the Assembly voted to block a rule that would allow more development in the preservation area of the New Jersey Highlands, the source of drinking water for millions of people.
The resolution (ACR-192) would declare a new rule adopted by the state Department of Environmental Protection inconsistent with the legislative intent of the law designed to preserve parts of the 800,000 plus acres Highlands. The rule would increase the density of septic tanks in the region, leading to more development, according to critics.