TRENTON, N.J. (June 10, 2015) – Environmental groups today filed a motion to intervene in litigation brought by the State of New Jersey against ExxonMobil Corporation over damages due for decades of toxic soil and water contamination in the northern part of the state, urging the court to reject a proposed settlement for 2.5 percent of the original price tag.
“This is a bad deal for the people of New Jersey, and a steal for this multi-billion-dollar oil giant,” said Margaret Brown, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Exxon turned this area into a toxic waste dump for more than a century. This big polluter should be held accountable for its dirty legacy, and restore the area to its former glory, once and for all.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic filed the motion today in New Jersey State Superior Court in Union County on behalf of Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper and Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Environment New Jersey, NJ Audubon, NY/NJ Baykeeper, NRDC, and Sierra Club New Jersey. The groups argue the proposed settlement should be rejected because it is far too low to restore and replace the region’s valuable ecosystems and make New Jersey residents whole for the loss of their use.
In 2008, the courts found that approximately 1,800 acres of wetlands, marshes, meadows, and waters has been buried under, or otherwise adversely affected by, decades of spills and leaks at two ExxonMobil oil refineries and petrochemical operations – Bayway, located in Linden, and another in Bayonne.
New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection originally argued that ExxonMobil owed the state $8.9 billion in damages, based on calculations from extensive state-commissioned expert studies. In April, however, the parties proposed settling for just $225 million, with little to no explanation for the drastic reduction.
The details of the settlement provide further cause for alarm. Of the proposed figure, $40 million would go to lawyers’ fees, and the settlement would release Exxon from liability and unknown damages at hundreds of other sites across New Jersey. On top of that, the state would not be required to spend any portion of the funds on natural resource restoration or replacement at the Bayonne or Bayway sites.
What were once vital ecosystems serving as habitats for a wide variety of wildlife—from flounder to terrapins and blue herons—are now wastelands as a result of more than a century of pollution. Instead of neighboring a rich natural area and natural flood buffer zone, the nearly 1 million people who live in adjacent zip codes now live in the shadow of a toxic dump contaminated with millions of gallons of oil and more than 600 chemicals, including some linked to cancer and several that pose other serious public health threats.
“This site represents one of the gravest examples of pollution of a natural resource in the state,” said Eric Stiles, President of NJ Audubon. “The good news is that sites like these can be restored back to thriving and vibrant wetlands, which provide buffers from flooding and storms, habitat for fish and wildlife, and recreation in one of the most densely populated parts of the state. The citizens of the state deserve full compensation so that this restoration can occur.”
“Unfortunately, the state of New Jersey is not fulfilling its responsibility to act as a trustee for our natural resources and is selling out to ExxonMobil,” said Debbie Mans, Baykeeper & Executive Director, NY/NJ Baykeeper. “Our organizations are seeking to enter the case to protect the public's interest and make sure the impacted communities and natural areas are made whole.”
“Exxon needs to be held fully accountable for their crimes against the environment and our communities, that includes being held fully and directly accountable for the damage they have inflicted on the Delaware River and all of the communities that depend upon our river for healthy and quality lives,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “We are moving to intervene in this action, to ensure that Exxon and all those who would damage our natural resources understand that they cannot and will not be let off lightly for harming present and future generations and to ensure that Exxon is held fully accountable.”
“There is nothing de minimis about the toxic legacy of Exxon’s oil facilities,” said Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey. “The Christie Administration’s disregard of a generation of pollution is a slap in the face to New Jersey. There was a way to make the initial Exxon settlement worse – and the Christie Administration found it by grandfathering in 16 more Exxon oil facilities and 800 gas stations that have created a legacy of pollution and public health risks. Exxon doesn’t deserve to be left off the hook.”
“This is not a settlement, it is a sellout of the taxpayers and the environment,” said Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club. “We are going to court to do the job that DEP should do, which is to reject this settlement and make Exxon pay their fair share. This dirty deal should not stand. Not only does it affect Linden and Bayonne, but communities from one end of New Jersey to the other. Exxon must be held liable and must pay for the damages they caused to these communities and the environment. We are intervening in this case to represent the people since DEP is more concerned about Exxon. We will go into court to uphold the public trust doctrine and make sure polluters pay for the damages to natural resources. We are here to put the trust back into the public trust doctrine and ensure those people in those communities get the money they are entitled to.”
“We're asking to be heard because this is a bad deal for New Jersey taxpayers, public health and the environment,” said David Pringle, NJ Campaign Director, Clean Water Action. “When you add up all the details in the proposed settlement, it's a sweetheart deal for Exxon—possibly less than half of one tenth of one cent on the dollar for restoration—and a raw deal for the rest of us. The public, the NJ Legislature, and our members have spoken up resoundingly against the settlement and for polluter pays. Governor Christie isn't representing the public interest, and this isn’t a fair deal.”
Exxon's corporate predecessors began operating at Bayonne in 1877, and at the Bayway Refinery in Linden in 1909.
Exxon filled wetlands to develop the sites, spilled petroleum products and other hazardous substances from its refineries and chemical plants onto the land and into the water there, and used natural areas as primitive waste dumps. In addition to heavy and pervasive contamination at the sites, the pollution migrated to the waters of the Upper New York Bay and the Arthur Kill, which separates Staten Island from mainland New Jersey.
The New Jersey state court held Exxon liable for the contamination. At a trial to fix the amount of money damages Exxon would have to pay, the state’s witnesses described once-healthy salt marshes smothered in contaminated fill and other wastes, unlined pits of mixed oily wastes more than 10 feet deep, and extensive chemical soil contamination. They described the Bayonne site as so saturated with oil that there is more than 15 feet of petroleum waste floating on top of the underlying groundwater in some places. In other places, petroleum has leached from the ground and hardened, creating an asphalt-like material on the surface.
In its final brief before proposing the settlement, the DEP described the scope of the environmental damage resulting from the discharges “as obvious as it is staggering and unprecedented in New Jersey.”