Officials Question Christie’s Involvement in Exxon Settlement

By Brenda Flanagan

“It was really more spin than substance. It’s really a snow job, during a blizzard,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Chapter Director Jeff Tittel.

Environmentalists cried foul. Even though a judge found ExxonMobil liable for decades of oil and chemical pollution — a toxic brew that despoiled 1,500 acres of New Jersey marshlands and waterways at its refineries in Linden and Bayonne — a controversial settlement just proposed by New Jersey’s Acting AG John Hoffman wouldn’t require the oil giant to reach very deeply into its pockets. Just $225 million instead of a potential $9 billion.

“When water and wetlands are contaminated, the public’s supposed to be compensated and there’s a value to that. And it’s not three cents on the dollar. It’s billions of dollars. So this statement by the AG, the fact that they put out in the middle of snowstorm shows they’re trying to cover up what’s happening here,” said Tittel.

According to the AG, this Exxon settlement would “…resolve its liability for damage to the environment and injury to natural resources caused by contamination from its refinery operations in Bayonne and Linden, as well as from company service stations and other facilities located throughout New Jersey…” and “…comes on top of ExxonMobil’s separate obligation to remediate the contaminated Bayonne and Linden refinery sites at the company’s sole expense.”

But the settlement comes amidst fresh allegations of political pressure from the governor — via his chief counsel, Chris Porrino. In a New York Times op-ed piece, former DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell today wrote, “Former colleagues of mine in state government, where I served as commissioner of environmental protection from 2002 to 2006, have told me that Mr. Christie’s chief counsel inserted himself into the case, elbowed aside the attorney general and career employees who had developed and prosecuted the litigation and cut the deal favorable to Exxon.”

That drew calls for AG Hoffman to step down.

“If it’s true that indeed what former DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell said — that the governor’s chief counsel was the one who engineered the settlement and indeed pushed the career professionals out of the way — then he should resign because he has to be independent of the governor as the chief law enforcement officer of the state of New Jersey. He has to represent not the governor but the people of the state of New Jersey,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.

But the governor’s office called Campbell’s allegations “…absurd and baseless.” Deputy Communications Director Kevin Roberts says, “Campbell’s attacks are even more irresponsible, disingenuous, and baldly political when you consider that as DEP Commissioner, Campbell projected Exxon’s liability could run into the ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ and said the case would likely have a reasonable basis to be settled, rather than fully litigated.”

Meanwhile, both Lesniak and Senate President Steve Sweeney have promised to sue to block the settlement; now, both want to know about the governor’s involvement.

“We are going to be asking for a lot of documents to dig down to it. If what we’ve read is true — there’s allegations now — then we have a major problem and I think we have to talk to the U.S. attorney. So we’ll go from there,” Sweeney said.

The proposed settlement — unveiled in a snowstorm — won’t be published until spring — early April, that’s when DEP will accept public comments. Expect those comments to be passionate — and the politics to be even more so.