By Brenda Flanagan
Democrats pushed every hot button issue on the DEP’s budget list today, starting with the proposed $225 million Exxon settlement including the 16 other Exxon sites also rolled into the deal. Assemblyman John McKeon wanted to know how much more the state might win by pursuing these cases separately, in court.
“It becomes very frustrating for the public not to understand what we ‘gave away’ into the settlement. I don’t mean to use incendiary language, but if we can’t understand the depth of the issues on all 16 of those sites, how can we make intelligent decisions as to whether or not that would be an appropriate overall deal?” McKeon asked.
“The cost of the litigation would far exceed any recovery we would get at the end of the day, and so we determined that we would package that into the deal, overall,” said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.
Martin explained legal constraints prevent him from providing many of the details. He said state law requires Exxon to clean up the pollution — and DEP won’t get most of that settlement money.
“Is it your belief those proceeds can be used for any proceeds in state government, that the governor and Legislature sees fit?” asked Assemblyman Troy Singleton. Martin replied, “Yes, I believe so. At the end of the day, the money’s coming into the state just like all other funds that come in at the end of the day.”
Last Wednesday, the commissioner did not appear at a hearing to answer questions about the state’s years-overdue water supply master plan, with a price tag that’s estimated in the billions. Today, Martin explained the DEP’s still gathering data.
“Well, is it accurate that the plan was submitted to the governor’s office but just hasn’t been implemented? It was submitted a few years ago. Is that accurate or no?” Singleton asked. Martin replied, “No, the plan has been with DEP. We do consult with the governor’s office — policy office — on several items, on anything that we do.”
Martin said the DEP hopes to release the plan this year. He says, in a few months, DEP will also release an outline showing possible enhancements at Liberty State Park, but had no details today.
“Can we trust that under your watch Liberty State Park won’t be disturbed in terms of its open, free urban green oasis that it is?” asked Assemblyman Raj Mukherji. Martin said,”Oh, we are very committed to that. We recognize the need for that. But there’s — we also want to find opportunities to raise more money if we.”
But the state’s still fighting holdouts in towns slated for beach replenishment and dune building. Homeowners and town governments in Bay Head and Margate face eminent domain lawsuits, as does Jenkinson’s. The DEP still needs about 300 easements, he says.
“We’ve got a lot of people who are being very selfish right now,” said Martin.
“That’s a shame. I hope that changes before we spend too much additional public dollars trying to force these folks to let us help them and protect their assets,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon.
In this tight budget season, the DEP’s also feeling the squeeze — multi-million dollar settlements notwithstanding.