The price tag for cleaning up two petroleum refineries in northern New Jersey will cost Exxon Mobil much more than the $225 million settlement brokered by Gov. Chris Christie's administration, but critics of the proposal say it could be years until it's clear how much the company eventually will have to pay.
The Department of Environmental Protection posted details of the proposed settlement with the Texas-based oil company on Monday but did not outline what it plans to do or how much the clean-up will cost.
The cleanup costs are at the center of a fierce debate between the Christie administration and the Democrat-led Legislature, which faults the governor for settling for a fraction of the $8.9 billion in damages that had been determined in court documents.
The administration counters that there is no cap on the cost of cleaning up the site, which Exxon must pay for.
On Tuesday, Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak renewed his efforts to scuttle the deal and said the company's requirement to pay for cleanup had already been decided. The administration, he says, should have gotten more from Exxon.
He also called for the settlement's rejection and presented what he said were 15,000 signatures opposing the deal.
The settlement must clear several hurdles before it becomes official. The public has until June to weigh in before the state DEP finalizes or changes the decision, and then Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan would rule on the deal. Judges typically approve these kinds of agreements.
Pinpointing the exact cost, though, could take years, environmental law experts say.
If the deal goes forward, Exxon would be expected to conduct studies to determine where petroleum and other chemicals may have leaked into the ground, said John Pendergrass, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute. Then, the company would draft a cleanup plan, subject to state approval, that may address stopping the spread of contaminants.
Typically, Pendergrass said, the plans do not require a return to "pristineness," but to a point where no one would be exposed to contamination. A 2006 report included in the court documents says there has been "widespread contamination" at the two sites, one in Linden overlooking the Arthur Kill waterway separating New Jersey from Staten Island and the other in Bayonne near the Upper New York Bay.
DEP spokesman Bob Considine did not estimate what Exxon might have to spend but said there is no limit on potential costs.
"We won't have a firm number on those costs until more investigations are undertaken, a feasibility analysis is undertaken, and a remedy is selected," he said. "Even then the costs are not frozen as circumstances can change."
Exxon has already spent $260 million on cleanup in Linden and Bayonne since a 1991 administrative consent order, said company spokesman Todd Spitler, though he added that he could not talk about ongoing costs.
Pendergrass said the process likely at play in New Jersey has been developing since the 1970s and achieves some results, but does not result in complete cleanup.
"It is working and there's a lot of experience," he said. "But the results — they're not ideal but we've learned how to accommodate and we've gotten better at creating these institutional controls."