Judiciary Committee Hears Criticism of Exxon Settlement

By Brenda Flanagan

“It’s about time people that people seem to be engaged in an environmental issue,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.

An understatement as witnesses debated the Christie administration’s proposed $225 million Exxon settlement. The standing-room-only audience packed the Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting and heard scathing criticism of the proposal.

“For $225 million, I’d rather lose! I would literally rather lose than to ratify the behavior of a bad actor who stonewalled, given the chance many many times to do the right thing by the people,” McKeon said.

After a protracted court battle with the state, Exxon finally admitted liability for contaminating the Bayonne and Bayway Refinery sites with more than 7 million gallons of petrochemicals — polluting soil, marshes and groundwater. In 1991, the oil giant agreed to pay for environmental remediation — clean-up.

Today NY/NJ Baykeeper Deb Mans warned, “Anyone who thinks that ExxonMobil will complete a comprehensive clean up of these sites is dreaming. In internal Exxon documents  obtained through a final review of the court material it specifically states that the key to lowering costs is to change the rules of the game.”

When the courts let New Jersey request compensation for damages wrought over more than a century, it originally asked for $8.9 billion. Mans says the $225 million settlement wouldn’t be nearly enough to fully restore the area or compensate its residents — and local mayors agreed.

“I just don’t trust the large corporations to be responsible enough to clean up. I don’t trust them any more than I would trust my 8-year-old daughter to clean her room,” said Linden Mayor Derek Armstead.

“A superior court judge — a neutral third party — is going to determine whether this is a fair settlement,” said Assembly Minority Leader John Bramnick.

Republicans on the committee claimed the public will get 30 days to comment and that no one has even seen details of the as-yet-unpublished settlement.

“What about these natural resource damages for loss of use from 1870 on to today? That’s a very difficult number to quantify and any litigator will tell you that if you get a chance to settle on a reasonable basis, take it because you have a real chance of walking way with zero,” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll.

“Allegations that this is some sort of sellout to Exxon for political purpose is unfair,” said Bramnick.

Gov. Chris Christie’s spokesman called the hearing “…just another act in the partisan political theater we’ve seen for weeks on the proposed settlement with ExxonMobil…willful misinformation campaign and partisan scare tactics…”

But Committee Chair McKeon claimed the administration’s already counting on this settlement — literally — noting next year’s budget revenue shows a $220 million settlement with $50 million earmarked for the environment, $60 million for lawyers and fees and the rest — $110 million — for the general treasury.

“And that must reference specifically what the plan is as it relates to this $225 million and I think in and of itself that’s  inappropriate,” McKeon said.

Democrats on the committee approved a bill that’d slash in half settlement money that could be diverted to general funds. Republicans voted no.

The committee did unanimously approve a bill that would expand the comment period from 30 to 60 days, saying this was such a massive settlement they needed more time to study it. Speaking of comments, Exxon was invited to the hearing and chose not to appear.