Judge approves ExxonMobil settlement; quick appeal promised
For more than a decade, New Jersey sought $8.9 billion in contamination lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corp. but settled for $225 million in March. Tuesday, a New Jersey judge approved the settlement, but an influential Democratic lawmaker who has spearheaded critics blasting the deal said the legal fight was not over.
"The $225 million dollars is grossly inadequate for the $8.9 billion that was put into evidence. I'm filing an appeal immediately. The appeal form is very easy. I will file an appeal before the end of the week," said State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union).
Lesniak believes Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan left the door open for an appeal. According to the settlement, Lesniak said, the state lets ExxonMobil off the hook for a $1 billion clean up at the Bayway Refinery. The senator said that violates the Spill Act.
"It's clearly a violation of the law, reversible error," Lesniak claimed.
In an emailed press release, the legislator called it a "setback."
"While the ExxonMobil decision is a setback for NJ, Judge Hogan's opinion gives us an opening for appeal. The Judge decided not to override the state's $225 mil. settlement, but its deferral of the $1 bil. cleanup of Morses Creek gave Judge Hogan "pause to think" and gave me grounds to appeal," Lesniak said. "Stay tuned. This fight is far from over."
The approved settlement was quickly lauded by Gov. Chris Christie's Administration. An email sent out by Deputy Press Secretary Nicole Sizemore cited parts of the judge's ruling that said the state beat its historical average by $61 million and although far smaller than the estimated $8.9 billion in damages, Exxon's payment represents a reasonable compromise given the substantial litigation risks the DEP faced at trial and would face on appeal.
Sizemore's emailed statement read:
"Judge Hogan's ruling today affirms what we have said all along - this is a fair and historic settlement that serves the best interest of the people and state of New Jersey. The exhaustive 81-page opinion leaves zero room for doubt that, after almost 20 years of aggressive litigation by the state and negotiations spanning the last two administrations, this settlement is a victory for our state. The Christie Administration has not only secured the largest environmental damage recovery in state history, but also cemented ExxonMobil's obligation to pay for the complete clean-up and remediation of these sites on top of this landmark payout."
The state filed suit against ExxonMobil in 2004. The lawsuit sought to force ExxonMobil to clean up contaminated sites and pay the state for environmental damages. The estimated $8.9 billion was for damages at the Bayonne and Linden refineries. Fifteen additional contaminated sites along with more than 800 gas stations were ultimately added to the case. Environmental groups quickly criticized Monday's ruling and also pledged to appeal it.
"In one of the saddest environmental days long time, today the judge upheld the Exxon settlement. Today the people lost,but the fight will continue. We are very disappointed with the Judge's decision to accept the outrageous Exxon settlement. The judge has rubber-stamped the biggest corporate subsidy in state history," wrote New Jersey Sierra Club Executive Director Jeff Tittel in an emailed comment.
Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D-19) called the decision a "loss" for the people of New Jersey.
“Today’s ruling in support of the Christie administration’s settlement agreement with Exxon is a grave loss for the people of New Jersey. It cheapens the value of our natural resources and shortchanges the public that was deprived of their use. Worse yet, it set a low bar for future negotiations, which will only perpetuate the injustice of the decision," Wisniewski said in a press release Tuesday.
A press release sent out by the State Attorney General's office hailed what it called a landmark and historic settlement because Hogan clearly stated that the standards met by the settlement are fair, reasonable and in the public's interest.
"This is an important settlement for the citizens of New Jersey and for our environment, one which came about because this administration aggressively pushed the case to trial," said acting Attorney General John Hoffman in the press release. "Through this settlement, we have ensured the continuation of ExxonMobil's cleanup obligation at these contaminated sites, and held the company financially accountable through a historic Natural Resource Damages settlement."