The public will get its first chance Monday to scrutinize the details of the Christie administration's proposed $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil, starting the clock on a legal process that will last at least a month and giving vocal opponents an opportunity to persuade a judge to kill the deal.
Details of the proposal the attorney general struck last month with the Texas-based oil company will be published on the Department of Environmental Protection website.
News of the settlement came in early March when acting Attorney General John Hoffman announced the deal with Exxon, the culmination of an 11-year-old lawsuit that accused the company of polluting the land and water around oil refineries in Linden and Bayonne in northern New Jersey.
Here's a look at what to expect and what happens next:
HOW THIS WORKS
The public will have 30 days to comment, and then the Department of Environmental Protection 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 then he may decide what the damage award should be, though it is common with agreements like these for the judge to approve them.
Commenting on the settlement within the 30-day window gives the commenter standing to pursue an appeal.
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 the administration for accepting pennies on the dollar.
The state Senate passed a resolution deploring the deal and state Sen. Ray Lesniak has been buffeting the governor over the deal, publicizing requests for information from the administration. He is planning a news conference on Tuesday and said "you can guarantee I'll be the first person in line" to comment publicly.
The administration counters 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.
The administration also says it has recovered more money from settlements than previous administrations and that Exxon is still responsible for the cost of any cleanup at the sites.
"This should be a great environmental accomplishment for the state," said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.
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 center 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 more than $50 million to be spent on cleanup. Christie has until May to decide if he'll veto the bill.