Environmental Groups to Appeal $225M Exxon Settlement

State Senator Ray Lesniak. Alyana Alfaro for Observer

Environmental groups trying to block the state’s controversial settlement with ExxonMobil over natural resource damages will get their day in court next month against the Christie administration.

The groups are appealing a lower court’s decision to sign off on the $225 million settlement with Exxon, which polluted wetlands around former refineries in Linen and Bayonne. An appellate court is scheduled to hear oral argument 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 11. at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton.

Led by the New Jersey Sierra Club, the groups argue the settlement falls way short of compensating the state for Exxon’s environmental damages. The state originally sought $8.9 billion from the oil company before both sides settled a lawsuit for the much smaller amount in 2015.

State Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan approved the settlement and said the groups could not intervene in the deal. The environmental groups — which also include Clean Water Action, Environmental New Jersey, Delaware Riverkeeper Network — and state Sen. Ray Lesniak are challenging the decision.

“We are going back to court because the Judge sided with Gov. Christie in this toxic settlement, which let Exxon off the hook from cleaning up this mess,” New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said in a statement. “By settling this case, the administration has saved Exxon billions of dollars at the expense of the taxpayers and violated New Jersey law. We are suing under the Environmental Rights Act, which gives us standing to enter the case.”

Lesniak (D-Union) will argue that the lower court decision violates the New Jersey Spill Act and that he has the right to intervene because the settlement is a “matter of substantial public interest,” according to a news release from Senate Democrats.

“New Jersey deserves an award for more than 100 years of contamination to our natural resources that accurately reflects the damage done, unlike the pennies on the dollar settled by Gov. Christie,” Lesniak said in a statement. “This is the largest environmental contamination case in New Jersey history, which makes the settlement one of the most egregious sellouts the state has experienced.”

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office declined comment.

The fiscal 2018 budget places a $50 million cap on how much money won from natural resource damage settlements can go into an environmental site cleanup fund. For settlements larger than $50 million, any amount above that threshold would go into the state’s general fund. Environmentalists and some Democrats worry if the Exxon settlement comes out of escrow this year, $175 million of that money would go to the general fund instead of cleanup efforts.

Tittel said Tuesday that he didn’t expect a decision for months, possibly pushing the case into January when the state has a new governor. Whoever that is may want to take a second look at the settlement to see if the state can get more money, Tittel said.