Senator Ray Lesniak and various environmental groups were in court today arguing for the right to pursue a claim blocking a sweetheart deal made between the Christie administration and Exxon Mobil.
The environmental advocates are asking the state Appellate Division to overturn a superior court judge’s decision to deny them legal status to intervene in the case, where the Republican governor gave up $9 billion to compensate for decades of pollution at several refineries in exchange for $225 million.
If the Appellate Division agrees with the environmental groups, it would open the way for them to challenge the Christie-Exxon settlement reached in 2015, when the state Department of Environmental Protection, “abandoned its duty as trustee of the state’s natural and financial resources.”
Lesniak is joined in the legal battle by the New Jersey Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper and Environment New Jersey.
The settlement, announced in February of 2015, was for environmental damage to 1,800 acres of wetlands around Exxon’s waterfront refineries in Linden and Bayonne, for which the state originally sought nearly $9 billion from the oil giant.
The state was likely to get far more than $225 million, because a judge ruled that Exxon was liable for damages from decades of pollution at the sites and Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan was just about to determine how much the company should pay when Christie settled.
Critics were outraged by the comparatively small amount of money and the inclusion of 16 smaller sites and 1,800 retail gas stations that were not part of the original case.
The long-fought legal battle to recover nearly $9 billion in damages from Exxon Mobil Corporation for the contamination and loss of use of more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, marshes, meadows and waters in northern New Jersey was been quietly settled by the state just as the governor was mounting his campaign for president.
Exxon contributed $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association in May 2014, when Christie was serving as chairman, records show.
The lawsuits, filed by the State Department of Environmental Protection in 2004, had been litigated by the administrations of four New Jersey governors, finally advancing to trial in 2014. By then, Exxon’s liability was no longer in dispute; the only issue was how much it would pay in damages.
The stakes were high, given the enormous cost the state’s experts had placed on restoring and replacing the resources damaged by decades of oil refining and other petrochemical operations, as well as of the public’s loss of use of the land.
“The scope of the environmental damage resulting from the discharges is as obvious as it is staggering and unprecedented in New Jersey,” the administration of Gov. Chris Christie said in a court brief filed before his administration mysteriously put it to an end.
The state chapter of the Sierra Club criticized Christie’s budget proposal, saying it would hurt environmental protections, and noted the deal allowed part of the Exxon money to shore up state revenues instead of going toward cleanup costs.
Richard B. Stewart, a New York University law professor and a former head of the Justice Department’s environmental division under President George Bush, noted the “striking disparity between the damages claimed, which have been exhaustively litigated, and the settlement amount,” particularly with a judicial ruling expected soon.
Debbie Mans, the executive director of the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, characterized the proposed deal as “a travesty” and called on the judge to “reject the settlement outright.”
The hazardous substance damage to the Bayonne and Linden sites dated back many years and included over 600 identified chemicals that adversely affected the area because they were buried or discharged.
“Contamination of the land and water at the Bayway and Bayonne refineries began as early as the 1870s in Bayonne and the early 1900s in Bayway and continues to this day,” the state’s expert report says.
“Today, many of these dredge fill areas still look and smell like petroleum waste dumps,” the report continues. “Spilled materials from pipeline ruptures, tank failures or overflows, and explosions have resulted in widespread groundwater, soil and sediment contamination.”
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