NJ attorney general ramps up efforts to hold polluters accountable

The state’s dropping the hammer on ExxonMobil, at least that’s how Attorney General Gurbir Grewal characterized the six-count suit brought against the oil and gas company. The state’s seeking natural resource damages for contamination of the Lail site in Gloucester County.

“It’s part of our effort to hold polluters accountable in New Jersey — large polluters, small polluters,” Grewal said.

The Department of Environmental Protection says ExxonMobil first started dumping drums of petroleum products and other hazardous substances on its 12-acre Lail site back in the 1950s.

“In those 12 acres you literally had hundreds of barrels that were discharged of petroleum distillate, essentially the goop created from the refinery process. And that goop was contaminated with PCBs, a known human and animal carcinogen. And that carcinogen is still with us. It is still in animal tissue. It’s still in the ground. It’s still in our waterways,” said Environment New Jersey Director Doug O’Malley.

The state sued ExxonMobil in 2004 for $8.9 billion, but after a decade of litigation, settled for a fraction of the amount at $225 million. It was a decision by then-Gov. Chris Christie that brought the ire of former state Sen. Ray Lesniak.

“Not only did Christie settle for pennies on the dollar, he gave away a billion dollars in that suit. I took it all the way to the supreme court,” Lesniak said.

Lesniak says he sought the support of the new Murphy administration in 2018 when his case was before the court but didn’t get it.

“The only reason why we lost is the supreme court said no one has standing to challenge an agreement by the state,” he said.

But Grewal says the decision was made before the current administration had any power to change it.

“Settlements were done, positions were taken in court papers, court decisions were made, so we can’t control what we can’t control. What we can control is what we do now, moving forward, to stand up for the environment and New Jersey,” Grewal said.

Environmentalists are just happy to see ExxonMobil back in the hot seat.

“The reality is that Exxon got off easy. They polluted literally more than a thousand acres of wetlands and other estuaries all across the state, and this is an opportunity to go after Exxon for a legacy of pollution in South Jersey that they have not been held account to,” O’Malley said.

ExxonMobil has not responded to requests for comment. As for how much the state is seeking?

“We’re going to quantify the damage to the natural resources at issue here. And that’s going to be what we find out in the court papers and the discovery process and the expert discovery process. So it’s not as simple as putting a value on it right now at the outset,” Grewal said.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that litigation moves slowly and it could be years before the state sees even another dollar from ExxonMobil.