New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sen. Raymond Lesniak said Tuesday they will go to court to block a reported plan by Gov. Chris Christie to settle a nearly $9 billion environmental contamination lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp. for just $250 million.
A provision in the current state budget, which expires June 30, allows the New Jersey governor to divert money obtained from environmental litigation settlements exceeding $50 million away from pollution cleanup programs to the state’s general fund. Critics say the temporary provision is an incentive for Christie’s administration to settle quickly by lessening the fines, so the governor can use the cash to fill budget gaps or finance corporate subsidies. “Christie was trying to get this settlement in before (June 30) because we won’t repeat it in the new budget,” Lesniak said.
Lesniak and Sweeney said in a joint statement Tuesday they will intervene in the lawsuit by filing a motion with the court. Lesniak also filed an official request for all documents related to the shriveled settlement, which was first reported by the New York Times. It will take Exxon Mobil roughly 5 hours to generate the sales to pay out the reported $250 million based on the company’s 2014 revenue of $411.9 billion. “We have to and we will get to the bottom of this case to determine how $8.9 billion shrunk down to $250 million,” Lesniak said in a statement Tuesday. “We are going to dig deep and then we will dig deeper to find the truth."
The proposed settlement would end an 11-year lawsuit aggressively pursued by three prior administrations alleging Exxon Mobil damaged more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, marshes and meadows in Bayonne and Linden where the company ran oil refineries for decades, including the Bayway Refinery. An expert hired by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had estimated it would cost $8.9 billion to restore the damage to the Bayway and Bayonne sites alone.
“I grew up in the Bayway section of Elizabeth and I can tell you that the smell was bad but this proposed settlement smells worse,” Lesniak said in a statement Tuesday. "I'm willing to go to court to force them to do the right thing."
The reported settlement follows a flood of campaign cash from the company to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs. Exxon Mobil has donated more than $1.9 billion to the group since Christie’s first run for governor in 2009. When asked whether the settlement reduction represents a gift to Exxon Mobil, Lesniak told International Business Times “one can certainly see it that way.”
In two letters obtained by the IBTimes dated Jan. 29 and Feb. 13 to the Burlington County Superior Court, Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said the state and Exxon Mobil were involved in “serious settlement negotiations” and asked Judge Michael Hogan to "defer" issuing a decision in the case.
Hoffman sent a third letter to Hogan dated Feb. 20 reporting the parties had reached agreement that would be published in the April 6 issue of the New Jersey Register and on the Department of Environment Protection’s website for at least 30 days for public notice and comment. Both parties will then submit the settlement to the judge for final approval by mid- to late May “unless comments received during the public notice and comment period necessitate a change," according to the letter obtained by IBTimes.
However, the active intervention pursued by Lesniak and Sweeney will help prevent the proposed settlement from being approved by the courts, the senators said in a joint statement Tuesday.
Paula Dow, Christie’s first attorney general who led the state’s case against Exxon Mobil until 2012, was a former lawyer for Exxon. Lesniak told IBTimes he doesn’t see Dow “having any relevancy in this case.”
David Sirota contributed to this report.