In recent years, the state has tapped polluters by having them pay to help restore natural resources — creating oyster habitat in Delaware Bay, building wetlands along Newark Bay, and demolishing dams on the Raritan River.
The money for those projects came from natural-resources damage claims filed by the state against those who have contaminated land and water, a tool used to restore areas harmed by industrial and other pollution.
In recent years, however, hundreds of millions of dollars from those lawsuits have been diverted to a more mundane use: balancing the state budget. If voters approve a constitutional question on this fall’s ballot, those diversions would come to an end.
The proposal, Ballot Question 2, got pushed by lawmakers after environmentalists and others raised an outcry over money from two huge pollution settlements ended up largely being diverted into the state budget instead of being used to restore areas damaged by pollution.
The most recent occurred when the state budget allocated most of the money from a $225 million natural-resources settlement involving two former refineries and other sites operated by ExxonMobil. The case, still under litigation, involved the contamination of hundreds of acres of marshes at the refineries.
The other case involved dioxin contamination of sediments and fisheries in the Passaic River by a former manufacturer in Newark. In that case, the bulk of the money was used to plug holes in the state budget.
New Jersey’s laws require corporate polluters to clean up where they have contaminated and pay for the damages the pollution has caused to waterways, wetlands, and other natural areas. The lawsuits are filed under Natural Resource Damage claims.
In urging support for the ballot question, conservationists yesterday said the diversion of funds from restoration of natural resources has occurred more frequently in recent years, blaming both parties for the problem.
“It will create a lockbox so Trenton politicians can’t steal natural-resource claims,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.
“Raiding of funds is a significant and widespread issue and has been for several administrations. Voter-approved constitutional amendments are the only way to protect funds for their intended purposes,’’ said Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper.
With the Exxon case still unsettled and three other long-standing NRD cases yet to be finalized, nearly $390 million in settlement money could be raided by the Christie administration if the ballot question is not approved, the advocates said.
“Natural-resource damage money is intended to help affected communities recover from industrial pollution, sometimes sustained over many decades,’’ said Kelly Mooij, vice president of government relations, New Jersey Audubon. “Spending the money for its intended purpose is essential to a successful program that makes polluted communities whole again.’’