- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A $225 million settlement between Gov. Chris Christie administration and ExxonMobil will be discussed in front of a state judge Thursday and New Jersey residents could find out soon if it will be approved.

What is expected to be a final hearing between the Department of Environmental Protection and the oil company is scheduled for Thursday in Superior Court in Mount Holly in the 11-year-old case.

Opponents who tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the case argued the state inexplicably abandoned its earlier damages estimate of $8.9 billion before settling on the lower figure.

The question is whether Judge Michael Hogan will accept the proposed settlement, which the Christie administration says is among the largest of its kind in state history, or whether he will reject it, possibly sending the parties back to the negotiating table.

Observers say it’s rare for such deals to be rejected.

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WHAT’S EXPECTED?

Gov. Chris Christie’s office says that if approved, the deal would be the second largest natural resources damages settlement in the U.S. against a corporate defendant and the largest in the state’s history.

While apparently no one has kept figures on how often judges reject these kinds of settlements, senior attorney Jim McElfish of the Environmental Law Institute said it seems they often are approved.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who opposes the state’s deal with ExxonMobil and doesn’t believe it’s in the public’s best interest, said it is rare for such proposals to be turned down because of the presumption that the state is acting on the public’s behalf.

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ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS OPPOSED

Four environmental groups on Tuesday appealed the judge’s decision not to allow them to intervene as a party to the case.

“This Exxon settlement/sell-out is too important for us not to appeal. This settlement is a bad deal for the taxpayers and the environment and needs to be blocked,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Lesniak said he also plans to challenge the settlement on the grounds that it violates portions of the state’s Spill Act.

“Spills have to be cleaned up. This settlement lets Exxon off the hook indefinitely for the cleanup of Morses Creek until refinery operations cease at the site, which could be forever,” Lesniak said.

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WHERE WILL THE MONEY GO?

The case involves pollution at two sites in northern New Jersey, retail gas stations and 16 additional facilities. All but a portion of the settlement would go into the state’s general fund, with $50 million used for cleanup. However, Exxon would still have to pay to clean the site up, an obligation the Christie administration points out when praising the deal. But it’s not clear just how much that will cost.

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Associated Press writer Josh Cornfield contributed to this story.


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