Out of any state in the union, it is likely that none is as self-contradictory as New Jersey. Torn between the major metropolises of New York and Philadelphia, the state operates as a hub for biotech and academia as well as for heavy industry. The deeply blue state with a controversial Conservative governor has often found its “Garden State” moniker running in deep contrast to its equally-noted unofficial nickname, “Dirty Jersey.” Four environmental groups led by New Jersey’s branch of the Sierra Club are asking Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan for permission to intervene in order to appeal a $225 million settlement that Hogan approved last month between Exxon Mobil and Governor Chris Christie. Former Governor James McGreevey sued the company in 2004, originally seeking $8.9 billion in damages caused by the Exxon’s operations at refineries in Bayonne and Linden, as well as 16 other contaminated sites and over 800 gas stations.
The groups, which also include Clean Water Action, the Delaware Riverkeeper, and Environment New Jersey believe that settlement was far too small considering the damages, even though it was the largest settlement by a private company to the state by a wide margin. The groups were denied a motion to intervene earlier in the year, although they were permitted to file briefs opposing the settlement amount. In the motion, the groups wrote that New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, “has abandoned its duty as trustee of the state’s natural and financial resources,” by accepting such a small settlement. The groups added that the “settlement amount is strikingly and suspiciously low in light of the resource devastation Exxon has wrought at the refinery sites.” The groups also added that while the Department allowed for public commenting on the settlement, those opinions “were ignored and not accommodated in any way.” The required 60-day period brought over 16,000 public comments, most which opposed the settlement amount for being too low. Plaintiffs’ attorney and Columbia Law Professor Ed Lloyd said, “We think this effort to intervene now is a stronger argument that the one we made earlier.”
Last month’s approval by Judge Hogan came after years of negotiations following the 2006 ruling by a state judge that Exxon was liable for decades’ worth of damages at oil refineries and other locations. Attorneys for the state argued that Exxon released over 600 toxic chemicals into the environment over that period of time. In a statement by New Jersey Sierra Club president Jeff Tittel, he justified the motion saying, “The public was outraged over the DEP settlement and should be more outraged by the Judge’s decision; that is why we are continuing the battle in Court.” Tittel went as far as to hint at corruption as well, adding, “This is more than an abuse of power it is a shameful manipulation of the judicial system.” Still Tittel may have a valid point as Governor Christie has already announced that only the first $50 million will go toward environmental restoration, with $50 million going to the firm hired to represent the state, Kanner & Whiteley. The rest of the funds, according to Christie, will be used to balance the state’s budget. Barring any intervention from the state or Exxon Mobil by Wednesday’s deadline, arguments for the motion will be heard on September, 22nd.
NorthJersey.com (The Record) – James M. O’Neill
PolitickerNJ – Jeff Tittel