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Op-Ed: Let Public Challenge State’s Environmental Damage Settlements

Citizens were denied right to challenge settlement in case of ExxonMobil’s massive environmental damage in New Jersey. NJ Legislature must ensure that right

Raymond Lesniak
Raymond Lesniak

Governor Chris Christie’s settlement with ExxonMobil for pennies on the dollar gave rise to public skepticism of collusion between the state government and the third largest company in the world. The New Jersey Supreme Court, in denying anyone’s standing to challenge the settlement, did nothing to reduce that skepticism. Indeed, it inflamed it. The New Jersey Legislature should take action to help restore faith in government by giving the public a right to be heard.

New Jersey’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil was the largest environmental damage claim in the history of not only the State of New Jersey, but also the United States — larger than for the Exxon Valdez or the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spills. For more than one hundred years Exxon contaminated the land, streams, and other waterways surrounding its refineries in Linden and Bayonne.

When the New Jersey Supreme Court denied my appeal — which was joined by environmental groups — of Gov. Christie’s settlement with ExxonMobil, the decision left New Jersey taxpayers holding the bag for ExxonMobil’s $8.9 billion of damage to the natural resources that protect the residents of Linden and Bayonne and surrounding areas from storm surges and preserve the ecological balance for fish, birds and other wildlife.

In addition to the cost of restoring the natural resources, the damage claim included $2 billion for denying the public the enjoyment of these natural resources.

I grew up “neath that giant Exxon sign.” My dad would take me to the pier at Elizabethport and reminisce about fishing off it. When I asked my dad why he never took me there to fish, he pointed to the Exxon, now ExxonMobil, smokestacks and said, “That’s why.”

ExxonMobil off the hook

In addition to settling the natural-resource damage claim for pennies on the dollar, Christie’s settlement also let ExxonMobil off the hook for $1 billion of cleanup costs at the Linden refinery and at other ExxonMobil facilities in New Jersey.

In denying our appeals because of lack of standing, the New Jersey Supreme Court did not address the substance of the appeals, the settlement’s violations of the Spill Act, letting ExxonMobil off the hook indefinitely from its obligation to clean up Morses Creek in Linden — the New Jersey Spill Act requires “prompt cleanup” — and including 16 other ExxonMobil facilities and more than 1,700 gasoline stations throughout the state without giving the public the right to comment, as required by the Spill Act. As a result, ExxonMobil walked away from the settlement with $1 billion dollars in its pocket.

The immunity from any challenge to the state’s settlements-of-damage claims for natural resource damages, granted to the state by the New Jersey Supreme Court, allowed the Department of Environmental Protection to hide from the public its assessments of damages at ExxonMobil’s other facilities — which were thrown into the deal at the last moment, while Judge Hogan was writing his decision after the end of testimony in the trial. My OPRA requests for these damage assessments were denied by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Trust in government is at an all-time low. No one, including the state of New Jersey, should be above the law. The New Jersey Legislature should take action to give the public standing to challenge natural-resource damage settlements by the state.

Former Senator Raymond Lesniak served 40 years in the New Jersey Legislature. He established the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership at Kean University to teach and promote advocacy.

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