The New Jersey Senate approved a resolution Monday that condemns a recent $225 million environmental-damage settlement with Exxon Mobil and asks the Superior Court judge overseeing the case to vacate the agreement.
The resolution generated a brief but feisty floor debate as Democrats blasted the settlement as too small while Republicans asked why the Senate had not raised any concerns about dozens of other environmental-damage settlements over the years that awarded the state only thousands of dollars.
Sen. Kevin O’Toole, a Republican, also said that if the Senate intervened in the case by appealing directly to the judge it would “pervert the process” and expose the Senate to ethics violations.
Democrats dismissed that argument. Sen. Bob Smith, who heads the Senate’s environment committee, called the settlement amount “outrageous.”
The resolution was a first for the Senate, but it lacks legal teeth — the judge can simply ignore it.
The settlement has drawn intense criticism from environmentalists and some legislators because the state has been litigating the case for a decade and had originally sought damages of $8.9 billion to restore wetlands near former Exxon Mobil refineries in New Jersey damaged by pollution from the company’s operations.
The settlement, announced earlier this month by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, came as the judge was about to rule on what Exxon Mobil should pay. The judge had already ruled that Exxon was liable for restoration.
Critics have called the settlement a gift by Christie to the fossil-fuel industry, which has donated substantially to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chaired last year. Many have also said that Christie sought the settlement as some quick cash to fill budget gaps — he had inserted language in the state budget that lets him take anything above the first $50 million from such settlements for budget needs.
The Senate Monday also approved a bill that would force Christie to give back some of those funds and use them instead for environmental restoration. The bill still needs Assembly approval, and the sponsor, Sen. Paul Sarlo, has conceded he likely won’t have the votes to override a Christie veto.
The bill would require up to half of environmental-damage settlement money in the current fiscal year to go toward environmental restoration and half to go to the state’s budget. The state has received $355 million from companies held liable for pollution of the Passaic River, but Christie diverted $288 million of that to balance the budget. This would force Christie to give some of that back.
A state Assembly committee has scheduled a hearing to review the Exxon Mobil settlement for Thursday.