New Jersey's $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil short-changed the public, four environmental organizations and a Democratic state senator told an appeals court Monday, adding they should be allowed to push for more cash.
State Sen. Ray Lesniak and an attorney for the environmental groups continued their yearslong push to intervene in New Jersey's settlement with the Texas petroleum company on Monday, arguing before a three-judge appeals court in Trenton that the trial judge was wrong to deny them the ability to intervene in the 2015 settlement.
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The state's legal fight against Exxon goes back 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 trial Judge Michael Hogan's decision when Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration and Exxon announced the settlement.
Lesniak, an attorney, argued for himself on Monday before the court. He called the lower court's decision "unfair, unreasonable and not in the public interest."
Lesniak and the environmental groups' attorney, Edward Lloyd, said they not only want the right to intervene but also challenge the merits of the settlement. They argued that the state accepted far too little compared with the earlier $8.9 billion estimate the state had calculated was needed for cleanup.
Allan Kanner, an attorney representing the state's Department of Environmental Protection, and Ted Wells, Exxon's lawyer, argued that Hogan was correct to reject the previous intervention attempts on the grounds that they didn't have standing.
Lesniak said that as a resident of Elizabeth, New Jersey, near where the contaminated sites noted in the suit are located, he believes he has standing. Lloyd argued before the judges that the question of standing was incorrectly applied to the groups by the trial court judge.
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.
Christie hailed it as the largest settlement of its kind in state history and pointed to it as a sign his administration was "aggressively litigating against polluters."
But Lesniak and environmental organizations said the state settled for "pennies on the dollar," and sought to challenge the deal.
The environmental organizations include Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Environmental New Jersey and New Jersey Sierra Club.
The money from the settlement has been frozen in an account earning interest while the appeals continue.