Senate Judiciary passes bill to ensure more Exxon money goes toward remediation, but critics still skeptical

In another effort to make Gov. Chris Christie’s Exxon Mobil settlement more palatable to critics who see it as too paltry, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee passed S-2791 during their hearing this afternoon.

The bill, sponsored by Paul Sarlo and introduced at the beginning of the hearing, amends the fiscal year 2015 budget to provide one-half of certain environmental damage amounts recovered are appropriated for costs of remediation, restoration, and clean up of contaminated sites. Rather than adding new language to the budget, the bill would simply restores language used in Democrats’ initial draft of FY2015’s budget that was later line item vetoed by Christie.

Under the bill, of any lawsuits settled with the state for over $50 million, 50 percent of the settlement would go to the state’s general fund, while 50 percent would be earmarked for the intended cleanup of the contaminated sites. Sarlo told PolitickerNJ the bill isn’t primarily concerned with the Exxon Mobil controversy — he noted other recent, high-profile environmental cases, including last year’s $1.7 billion settlement to clean up the Passaic River — he said the language would ensure that at least some of the money received by the state from the $225 million settlement would find its way back to restoring affected sites.

“The public is very weary on elected official taking money that is earmarked for other purposes,” Sarlo told PolitickerNJ earlier today. “I think in light of Exxon settlement, we have to make sure that money gets where it’s supposed to.”

During the hearing, environmental activists outrage at Christie’s decision to settle with the oil company for pennies on the dollar said they were encouraged by the bill, which could force Christie to put a greater share of the settlement money toward site remediation than currently has to (under his proposed FY2016 budget, a minimum of only $50 million from environmental settlements must be put toward clean-ups). But at least one pointed out to PolitickerNJ that it was Democrats who forced the legislature down a road this road in the first place.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued it was Sarlo and others who voted to add an item to last year’s budget that would force the state to keep half of the money on top of $50 million for the state’s Hazardous Discharge Site Cleanup fund — whereas prior to that, all monies resulting from environmental settlements were earmarked for the fund.

“By putting the language in there in first place, [Democrats] enabled [Christie],” Tittel said. “They need to fix this because they helped create the problem.”

Senate Democrats also passed a bill earlier today condemning the Exxon settlement altogether.

Senate Judiciary passes bill to ensure more Exxon money goes toward remediation, but critics still skeptical