Sen. Lesniak, environmentalists challenge controversial Exxon settlement

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

The state of New Jersey filed a lawsuit in 2004 against oil giant, Exxon, and initially argued the company should pay $8.9 billion in environmental damages that they said stretched back a century. Exxon initially argued they should pay zero, because it’s impossible to go that far back in time.

“What Exxon did was destroy communities by dumping toxic pollution for years on the ground,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.

Finally, after 12 years of litigation, the two parties reached a settlement for $225 million.

“This is less than three cents on a dollar to give on what we should be getting — closer to billions and billions of dollars would not be the right thing to do,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.

But what seemed like a closed case may now be reopened if Lesniak has it his way.

The senator spoke before an appellate court in Trenton to challenge the Christie administration’s settlement, saying it violates the Spill Act and he has the right to intervene.

“This is the biggest environmental pollution case in the history of the United States of America, not just New Jersey,” said Lesniak. “It’s nearly 150 years of pollution, it’s not going to be settled adequately for $225 million. I grew up in Elizabeth, still live in Elizabeth, and the pollution from Exxon for nearly 150 years has killed any opportunity to fish in the Arctic Hill, as I did when I was a child with my dad. It has jeopardized our safety by eliminating any opportunity to restore the wetlands and the marshlands that protect us from storm surges.”

Tittel, who grew up right by the plant, told NJTV News he believed that money wouldn’t all go toward cleanup efforts and that should be argued now, not after the settlement is finalized.

“We’re here doing the job that the DEP and state of New Jersey should be doing. We’re here fighting for the people of New Jersey, making sure the site gets cleaned up properly and people in New Jersey get adequate compensation,” said Tittel.

But in court, DEP Attorney Allan Kanner said it was a good deal. It took 12 years to come to a settlement and the state not only got cash, but also got leverage for other cases and “avoided risk of further litigation.”

He also told the courtroom all that goes away and he says “you’re rolling the dice” and continue to delay having work get done, a delay that “has been terrible for the state.”

Ted Wells, the attorney for Exxon, then told the room the public had the opportunity to give comments when DEP settled the case and the public was heard at the trial stage.

He said you “shouldn’t be allowed to come at the last minute” and says there is no basis for the intervention and the settlement did not violate the Spill Act.

Lesniak remained firm on his position in challenging the settlement.

“Why step in at the last minute? Because we’re challenging the settlement. It wasn’t the same during the course of the case,” he said. “The state’s position was $8.9 billion. All of a sudden, Christie wanted to balance the budget, he wanted to get this over with real quick, so he settled for three cents on a dollar.”

So, what happens if the case remains open, and the next governor changes the settlement? The senator says that’s what they want.

“If we keep it in the court and get an administration with a DEP commissioner right around the corner who is actually going to represent the public, then it won’t take that long, and Exxon will have to pay more a lot more,” said Lesniak.

It’s up to the judges to decide what happens next. Both parties will then have the right to take this to the state Supreme Court for review.