New Jersey posts details of $225M settlement with Exxon online, starting clock on legal review

Markets Associated Press

Details of New Jersey's proposed $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil over pollution around refineries in Linden and Bayonne were posted online Monday, starting the clock on a legal process that will stretch into June and giving vocal opponents an opportunity to persuade a judge to kill the deal.

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Details of the proposed deal struck last month between the attorney general and the Texas-based oil company were published on the Department of Environmental Protection's website.

The Department of Environmental Protection said the public has 60 days to comment and then it will decide whether to approve the agreement, which it is expected to do.

Then, Judge Michael Hogan will issue a ruling on the offer. If he does not sign off, he may decide what the damage award should be, though it is common with agreements such as the one between the state and Exxon to be approved by the judge.

Commenting on the settlement gives the commenter standing to pursue an appeal.

The expected payout is the second largest natural resource settlement against a single corporate defendant in the country's history, the department said in a news release. Only the Exxon-Valdez payout was larger.

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"We have vigorously litigated this case for the good of the environment and for the people of New Jersey," DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement. "On top of the historic payout for this natural resources damages settlement, there is no cap on what ExxonMobil must spend to complete the remediation work. ExxonMobil is also obligated to remediate all of the other, though far less contaminated, sites included in the proposed agreement."

News of the proposed settlement has become a political lightning rod because a report in the court documents had estimated that the state might recover up to $8.9 billion. Leaks of the deal appeared in the press before the attorney general discussed the details, and the Democrat-led Legislature criticized Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration for accepting pennies on the dollar.

The administration countered Democrats by saying if the deal is approved, it would be the state's largest natural resources disaster settlement ever with an individual corporate entity. The Passaic River settlement brought in $355 million in total from a number of companies stemming from the contamination from the former Diamond Shamrock site in Newark.

If the deal goes forward, the settlement money would not be available until the start of the fiscal year — July 1 — at the earliest, Hoffman said last month.

How that money is disbursed has also become the subject of a fierce debate. Under current law and as Christie proposed in his 2016 budget, the first $50 million of money recovered from natural resources settlements would go toward site cleanup and the rest would go toward the general fund. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has sent Christie a bill that would require half of the money from settlements of more than $50 million to be spent on cleanup. Christie has until May to decide if he'll veto the bill.

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Online: http://bit.ly/19Y7psi