Court declines to tear up NJ's $225M settlement with Exxon

A New Jersey appeals court on Monday turned down a request from environmental groups and a former state senator to undo a $225 million pollution settlement between the state and Exxon Mobil.

Appellate Division Judge Carmen Messano, writing on behalf of the three-judge panel, said that the trial judge had not made a mistake in judgment when he approved the deal in 2015. The ruling means that the environmental groups and former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak have — for now — failed in their effort to tear up a 2015 agreement between Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration and the Texas petroleum company.

The groups and Lesniak instead wanted the state to extract more money from Exxon, reflecting the $8.9 billion that the state had earlier estimated it was owed.

"We find no mistaken exercise of the judge's discretion in finding the consent judgment was fair, reasonable, consistent with the Spill Act's goals, and in the public interest," Messano wrote in the 47-page opinion.

Exxon spokeswoman Suann Guthrie said the Irving, Texas-based company agrees with the court's decision. A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the state had "nothing to add," and that the ruling spoke for itself.

Doug O'Malley, the director of Environment New Jersey, one of the groups seeking to stop the settlement, expressed optimism that new Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy would tear up the deal and seek more natural resources damages cash from Exxon.

"We didn't win the battle today," O'Malley said. "But we think we won the war by fighting this and getting a governor who's not willing to sell out the people of New Jersey."

Murphy's spokesman deferred to the state attorney general's office. A spokesman for the attorney general said the office had no comment.

Despite declining to overturn trial Judge Michael Hogan's 2015 ruling, the appeals court on Monday ruled that the groups had standing to appeal.

The groups, then, could seek relief from the New Jersey Supreme Court, and O'Malley and Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said the groups are considering that option.

Lesniak, who left office this year, did not have standing to appeal, the court ruled. He said in a statement to The Associated Press that he will appeal to the Supreme Court.

A third part of the ruling said the groups lacked standing to intervene at the trial court level, upholding a lower court ruling.

The state's legal fight against Exxon dates to 2004, when New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection brought a suit against Exxon over decades of pollution at two oil refineries in Bayonne and Linden.

A months-long trial was about to result in Hogan's decision when Christie's administration and Exxon announced the settlement.

The 2015 deal also included the settlement of claims concerning more than 1,000 retail gas station sites and additional refinery locations across the state that were not initially part of the litigation.

Hogan approved the deal and Lesniak and the groups — the New Jersey Sierra Club, Environment New Jersey, Clean Water Action and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network — have fought the decision since.

Christie had praised the deal as the biggest settlement of its kind in state history and the second-largest natural resources damages settlement with a single corporate defendant in the nation's history.