Proposed Constitutional Amendment Would Protect Environmental Settlement Money

Voters will get a say on a proposed constitutional amendment, fueled in part by outrage over last year’s infamous Exxon settlement. The state sought nearly $9 billion in penalties from Exxon Mobil for polluting vast swaths of marshes and natural resources around its refineries. A court ruled the company pay only $225 million for the damage prompting concern that the pennies on the dollar settlement would not even be spent on remediation efforts and instead be diverted to plug holes in the state budget. That’s what’s happened with past settlements, like the recent Passaic River cleanup.

Residents will decide next fall whether to put cash paid by polluters into a lockbox devoted only to protecting the environment. One of the proposed amendment’s backers is the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Ed Potosnak. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: What would this proposed constitutional amendment require of the government?

Potosnak: It will ensure that monies that are collected from polluters to help restore the environment after damages go back into the communities that were disaffected. In many cases a one shot opportunity for communities that saw historic pollution to be able to get back out on the waterways and enjoy them for fishing and kayaking and biking.

Williams: This passed really quickly and really surprised everyone on the very last minute of the session. Did you expect that?

Potosnak: Well certainly our group, the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, we’ve been making this a number one priority over the course of this past year. We’re working with leadership in both the Senate and the Assembly to get it posted and in all the public hearings and notices that are required so that we can put it before the voters. Unfortunately, what we have seen in the past administration and Democrats and Republicans have really taken an opportunity in Trenton to grab this money and use it for other purposes.

Williams: General fund.

Potosnak: That’s correct.

Williams: Plugging holes.

Potosnak: That’s correct. This is the only way we can ensure that never happens and that the funds actually go back to the restoration efforts that are so important.

Williams: I’ve referred to the Exxon Mobil settlement. Is any of that money gone into the general fund of been dispersed in any way yet?

Potosnak: No. That is right now being worked out in the court system and if we get enough of a delay what we can do is ensure that that money will also come back to the communities. The Exxon settlement’s a little different in that it’s pennies on the dollar, three cents on the dollar of what the restoration costs would be. And I think it’s important for viewers to note too that when you look at the natural resource damage money, that’s money for pain and suffering to the environment, lost use. So, if you could use that water if there was no pollution for fishing. This helps to offset that so families can get an opportunity to enjoy the lands in a different way.

Williams: Are you saying that if the voters pass this constitutional amendment it would be the Exxon Mobile settlement that would be retroactively put in a lockbox?

Potosnak: If the timing is right and we can hold off that settlement, yes. If that settlement were to come in after the November election that money would go back to those communities, which would be very exciting.

Williams: You said that governors in the past have raided this for general fund purposes. Is New Jersey unique in that regard?

Potosnak: I think New Jersey’s quite unique with the different funds that get raided, the Clean Energy Fund, over $1 billion has been diverted. We’ve seen open space money diverted under this governor and now with the NRD funds that have come in. You know, these are dedicated funds, there’s a public trust that they’ll go to the places they’re supposed to.

Williams: Voters have approved another lockbox deal — the gas tax money is going to go into a lockbox for transportation to fix roads and bridges, right? Does that bode well for this constitutional amendment, the fact that voters were willing to do that?

Potosnak: I think what we see as a propensity for voters to stand up for what’s right when the Legislature or the governor see a dollar sign, or see a way to plug a hold in the budget, that they find that money from some other source. It just speaks to what’s right and what’s wrong and voters are smart enough to stand up for what’s right. We think this is a very common sense measure.

Williams: So, what’s the next step if voters pass this? What more needs to be done?

Potosnak: I think that’s pretty much it. People should be aware that we need to make sure that we’re getting all of the money that we can for the polluters, making the polluters pay for that lost usage of the environment for the local aspects, the waterfronts. I think we have to stay strong and make good deals for the families and businesses that rely on them.

Williams: Is this going to be a deal by deal, polluter by polluter fight?

Potosnak: Yes. In other ways folks can get involved. The money will always be locked in the lockbox, so any settlements that come in would see their way back to the areas that contamination happened. But I think as far as other ways people can get involved is making sure we get as much money as we need to restore those sites.