Back in December, the environmental community thought they had locked up money from pollution settlements to prevent it from being diverted to other purposes.
That’s when they scored a rare victory: Lawmakers gave final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment to ensure money from pollution lawsuits is used to restore natural resources damaged by spills and other hazardous discharges.
But with the Legislature and Christie administration putting next fiscal year’s budget in order, environmentalists are trying to excise language in the governor’s spending plan that would divert funds away from restoration projects.
Unless the language is changed, environmentalists fear settlements with corporate polluters to restore waterways, marshes, and other areas damaged by them could be diverted to help balance the state budget, a tactic approved by Gov. Chris Christie for the past two years. The Legislature tried to minimize the diversions, but the governor vetoed its attempt.
“This provision could redirect hundreds of millions of dollars from future environmental settlements into the General Fund instead of restoring the environment,’’ said a letter submitted to legislative leadership yesterday by 11 leaders of conservation groups across New Jersey.
The diversion is particularly frustrating to the advocates since the Legislature voted to put a constitutional question on the ballot this November to bar such raids on environmental settlements.
“By leaving the Governor’s language in the budget, the Legislature is giving the administration one last chance to improperly divert funds away from communities before they are able to have their voices heard,’’ the organizations argued.
The stakes are high, given that the administration has reached a settlement with ExxonMobil to pay $225 million stemming from the contamination of hundreds of acres of marshes and waters at two refineries the company once operated in Linden and Bayonne.
Other environmental groups are contesting that settlement in court, a case that may drag on long enough to give voters time to prevent the diversion of that money, if the ballot question wins approval from voters, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. His group is among those challenging the settlement in state courts.
The diversion of money from so-called natural resources damage suits already has had an impact on local communities, according to conservationists who signed the letter. They include the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, New Jersey Audubon, New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, and the Ironbound Community Corp.
In their letter, they cite the $190 million settlement involving dioxin pollution in the lower Passaic River. Only $50 million of that settlement will be used for natural resource restoration projects in and around Newark, Harrison, Bayonne, and Jersey City, according to environmentalists.
“These communities have lived too long with pollution and deserve justice,’’ said a circular sent out by the American Littoral Society, which also signed the letter.
Another ballot question
The plea to protect the settlement money comes at the same time many of the same groups are hoping to get another question on the November ballot — a constitutional amendment to prevent diversion of funds from the Clean Energy Program.
There is a bill (SCR-151) to put the issue on the ballot, but it has stalled in the Legislature after being voted out of a Senate committee. With only two sessions scheduled before the summer recess at the end of June, it is unlikely to make the ballot this year.
The bill aims to stop a practice that has led to more than $1.5 billion in clean energy funds being diverted in the annual budget process, including more than $200 million in next year’s budget (counting $60 million used to plug a hole in the current budget in the past month).