Lawmakers Tap $160M in Pollution Damages to Restore Habitats

Tom Johnson | November 27, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Money from ExxonMobil case would be part of allotment for several restoration projects, but environmentalists concerned that funds are not properly targeted

The state is moving to spend tens of millions of dollars on restoration of natural resources, an issue that led to voter approval last year of a constitutional amendment preventing money from pollution settlements being diverted to plug budget deficits.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee yesterday approved legislation (S-3110) that would funnel more than $160 million from two natural-resource damage claims to a range of habitat restoration and water quality improvement projects.

The bill includes $50 million to be set aside from a controversial $225 million settlement with ExxonMobil to clean up contamination of more than 1,800 acres of wetlands and marshes around two refineries it operated in Linden and Bayonne. The bulk of the settlement — $125 million — was diverted to the general fund by the Murphy administration and $50 million covered attorney fees in the protracted litigation in the ExxonMobil case.

Those diversions, common during Gov. Chris Christie’s two terms, were supposed to end with approval in the fall of 2017 of a constitutional amendment dedicating funds from natural-resource damage claims to restoration and other environmental projects. The Murphy administration contended the amendment did not apply to the ExxonMobil settlement, a stance backed by a legal opinion from the Office of Legislative Services.

The legislation also allocates another $110 million from a separate natural-resource damage settlement to a range of environmental projects, including $30 million to prevent saltwater intrusion in groundwater supplies in Cape May and $19 million to restore the Atlantic White Cedar watershed in South Jersey.

Cleaning up the Hudson-Raritan Estuary

Other restoration projects that will be covered by the legislation include $10 million to improve water quality in the Hudson-Raritan Estuary by fixing combined sewer overflow systems that often spew raw sewage into waterways during heavy rainfall. Another $20 million is targeted for improvements to water supply and wastewater treatment systems and $10 million for habitat restoration.

That separate natural-resource damage claim involved a lawsuit brought more than a decade ago against three oil companies charged with polluting groundwater with a potential human carcinogen, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

Environmentalists, who lobbied hard for the constitutional amendment, expressed concern the bill allocating the money did not specifically target it on areas harmed by the pollution incidents.

“The bill is too vague on where the money is going to go,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We want to make sure the funding for restoration projects is going directly to areas impacted by Exxon.’’

But Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, disagreed. “I think that it’s just fabulous,’’ he said, saying it is the first time money from pollution settlements is being allocated to restoration of natural resources since the constitutional amendment was approved. “It’s a shame we didn’t do it before.’’