By Brenda Flanagan
People who grew up in the area remember the smell, mostly — the pungent miasma of petroleum laced with chemicals drifting from the former Exxon Bayway Refinery complex.
“Ah, petroleum based type stuff, sour eggs, stuff like that,” said Ted Petro.
For a decade, three New Jersey governors fought a protracted court battle to make Exxon admit its liability and pay for cleanup of some 1,500 acres of wetlands, waterways and marshes left damaged or destroyed by a century of rampant pollution at the Bayway and Bayonne refinery sites. It’d cost an estimated $9 billion dollars, according to the state DEP.
But recently, the New York Times reported, the Christie administration made abrupt plans to settle the case for $250 million.
“I would think it’d be a lot more than $250 million, absolutely. I would think so,” Petro said.
“I think it’s a bad deal,” said Rich Pelesko of Rahway. “Because we’re getting short-changed — the citizens.”
Shocked environmentalists say the $250 million wouldn’t even come close to the money needed to remediate this mess. Numerous expert reports describe spills, leaks, explosions, floods, seepage and dumping — millions of toxic gallons.
“I said, oh my god, what is going on here?” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.
Democrat Lesniak is one of a growing political chorus demanding transparency.
“I grew up in the Bayway section of Elizabeth. It stunk there! The stink, the smell was terrible. This stinks a lot worse than it did then. How does an $9 billion damage claim get reduced to $250 million? We have admitted liability — economic damages, cost of reparation and economic value lost,” he said.
“I couldn’t believe it! It’s bad for the community, it’s bad for New Jersey. The only one who wins here are the corporate interests. It means the site will never be cleaned up and restored,” said NY/NJ Baykeeper Executive Director Debbie Mans.
Some critics speculate it’s a money grab. The NY/NJ Baykeeper notes Chris Christie’s already used the bulk of a court settlement intended to clean up the Passaic River on money to plug holes in his current revenue-starved budget.
When asked if she thinks this is just a ploy to plug a hole in the budget, Mans said, “I think there’s a lot of things at work. Yeah I think it’s a way to have one-off to get quick cash into the budget and it’s a big give back to the oil and gas industry.”
Lesniak says Exxon contributed heavily to the Republican Governors Association — chaired by Christie last year — and that its law firm also has close political ties to the administration. The Governor’s Office has no comment and the judge in this case has yet to approve anything. Lesniak plans to send emphatic comments to the DEP.
“It makes everything around this case suspect — three cents on the dollar settlement, the political connections amongst the parties. Basically what we have to do is we have to have an independent evaluation,” he said.
Environmentalists say $250 million won’t buy much cleanup at the Exxon site, but it’s bought Exxon a boatload of outrage from critics who say they will fight any attempt at a cheap settlement.