Sen. Lesniak, Environmentalists Ask Judge to Let Them Intervene in Exxon Settlement Case

By Brenda Flanagan

The proposed Exxon deal to restore the toxic, damaged landscape at the Bayway and Bayonne Refineries ignited a political firestorm — including 10,000 mostly-negative comments from residents outraged that the DEP would settle for $225 million, instead of the almost $9 billion it originally demanded. The controversy brought opposing sides to court today.

“This settlement is not in the interests of the people of the state of New Jersey,” said Lesniak.

Sen. Ray Lesniak and a group of environmentalists have asked Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan to let them legally intervene in the case — essentially become parties in the lawsuit.

“There’s no one representing the legal interests of the state of New Jersey because I believe the Attorney General’s Office and the DEP has abdicated that interest,” Lesniak said.

“That’s wrong. I would say that politically he has a different political opinion than the DEP, and that’s why we have notice and comment,” said NJDEP attorney Allan Kanner.

Attorneys for the state DEP and for Exxon argued protesters have already commented — put their views on the record multiple times — and permitting them to actually intervene could drag out and complicate a lawsuit that’s already a decade old.

“The problem is nobody ever talks about Exxon’s view, that the damages in this case should be zero. That no damages should be awarded, yet we have agreed to pay $225 million. The state is willing to collect three cents on the dollar off of $8.9 billion, and that is because both these parties have been litigating and going at each other for 10 years,” said Exxon attorney Ted Wells.

Wells complained environmentalists will want additional evidence — particularly information about pollution at 18 additional Exxon properties and 800 gas stations unexpectedly rolled into the proposed settlement. He’s concerned they could reopen the entire lawsuit instead of moving toward closure when Judge Hogan finally rules on the proposed deal later this month.

“Now the question I guess the court has to grapple with is, if I go down that road, are we now going to open up discovery and start having mini-trials on each one of those sites?” Wells said.

“Those are some of the issues they don’t understand, and they believe those interests they have in preserving the environment are not being protected by that,” Hogan said.

Attorneys for several environmental groups admitted, if they get involved it could prolong the case.

“The delay that’s inherent in adding a party to the case including the prospect of an appeal that might not otherwise happen, that’s not a basis for denying intervention because it’s inherent in the whole idea of intervention,” said National Resources Defense Council attorney Selena Kyle.

The judge reserved decision. He’s expected to issue a written ruling Monday at the earliest.