ENVIRONMENT

Judge Sides With Exxon in $225 Million Settlement

By Brenda Flanagan
Correspondent

It’s all about restoring more than 1,000 acres of wetlands polluted by Exxon at the Bayway and Bayonne refineries plus more than a dozen other sites and hundreds of gas stations across New Jersey. Nobody expressed surprise over the judge’s giving his stamp of approval to the $225 million deal brokered by the oil giant and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection instead of the $8.9 billion originally requested by the state.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not extremely disappointed and very frustrated at the system,” said Debbie Mans, Executive Director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper.

Mans joined with several other environmental groups to fight the settlement in court. The Sierra Club’s vowed to appeal, but Mans isn’t sure.

“The feedback we’ve seen over and over again from the public — those whose interests that the state is supposed to be promoting here — is that they don’t think it’s a good deal and they’re very angry about it,” she said.

But Judge Michael Hogan after spending months hearing testimony in the 11-year-old case, called the deal “…fair, reasonable, in the public interest, and consistent with the goals of the Spill Compensation and Control Act…the DEP applied rational methods in order to estimate total damages and determine what a fair payment would be for those damages. 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.”  Trial attorneys note that Exxon originally offered zero.

“Which we believe is supported by the evidence that no damages should be awarded, yet we have agreed to pay $225 million,” said Exxon attorney Ted Wells.

A good settlement is a settlement where neither side is totally happy.

Environmental attorney Mike Sinkovich says the Exxon case involved complex analyses of how much it would cost to restore wetlands habitat, after Exxon cleans up pollutants.

“Environmental cases most of the times are what they call battles of the experts. They fight it out and oftentimes say different things, because scientists, just like
lawyers, just like everyone, can have different opinions,” Sinkovich said.

The governor’s office calls Hogan’s decision  “…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.” But the decision did defer the $1 billion clean-up Morse’s Creek — a toxic brew that meanders through the Bayway site — until after the refinery ends operations.

Senator Ray Lesniak objects.

“This contamination is going to continue. It clearly violates the Spill Act, and certainly gives me grounds to appeal,” he said.

Judge Hogan said he expected an appeal which could add months to the litigation. The decision will most likely be unpopular with residents, but law doesn’t always follow popular opinion.