Christie Wants to Divert Environmental Settlements One More Time

Tom Johnson | March 23, 2017 | Energy & Environment
Language in proposed budget would shunt hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements to general fund

Credit: Joe Loong
ExxonMobil's former Bayway refinery in Linden
Three months ago, the Legislature approved a bill putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall to require funds from environmental lawsuits to be used to restore natural resources damaged by polluters.

The Christie administration, however, is proposing to dip into that pool of money one more time, using much of the settlements from such lawsuits to help balance next year’s state budget.

In proposed language in the governor’s fiscal year 2018 budget, only $50 million would be deposited in a special fund to clean up and restore natural areas damaged by pollution. The rest of the settlement, in some cases involving hundreds of millions of dollars, would go into the general fund, minus payments to outside law firms.

The budget move is opposed by environmentalists because hundreds of millions of dollars from pollution lawsuits in recent years have been tapped by Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers to plug holes in the past two state spending plans.

“Balancing the state budget on the backs of those affected by disasters is unconscionable, and this provision must be changed so that all monies received from natural-resources damages go to those impacted,’’ Drew Tompkins, public policy coordinator for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, told the Assembly Budget Committee yesterday.

“Allowing the Governor to have one more shot to steal these funds is unacceptable,’’ Tompkins said. “The Legislature must replace this language.’’

In the past, much of the money from huge pollution settlements from some of the state’s most problematic pollution cases ended up being diverted, including the bulk of more than $300 million from a series of cases involving dioxin contamination of the Passaic River. In another pending case, now being litigated in the appellate division, most of the $225 million from a pollution case against ExxonMobil for damages to marshes and waterways at a pair of refineries it once operated is expected to go to the general fund or to paying off attorneys.

Tompkins also criticized the proposal to once again divert $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund, subsidized by utility customers, to pay salaries of state park management and employees. He noted that more than $1 billon has been diverted out of the fund since Christie took office with the approval of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Beyond the money for salaries, the administration also is proposing to use another $152 million in clean-energy funds to pay utility bills at NJ Transit and at state government buildings, a diversion it has made in the past.

“This has been Gov. Christie’s modus operandi since day one — to rely on environmental funds to fill budget holes,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) has vowed to end that practice, too. He is preparing legislation to put another constitutional amendment on the ballot to phase out the diversion of clean-energy money over a five-year period. He hopes to get the question on the November ballot.