A judge on Monday rejected an effort by environmental groups and a Democratic state senator to become a party to the state's pollution lawsuit against ExxonMobil, saying that they already had their chance to speak up over a proposed $225 million settlement.
The decision means the groups and state Sen. Raymond Lesniak will not be able to intervene in the settlement in the 11-year-old case, which they argued fell far too short of the $8.9 billion that state originally sought.
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Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan's 32-page ruling said the groups did not show that the state Department of Environmental Protection failed to represent their interests. He also said the groups and the senator had an opportunity to share their opinion through a 60-day public comment period after the proposal was unveiled and that their efforts could further delay the case.
"The delay caused by their intervention, therefore, would be undue because it would give these parties two bites at the apple: they would be able to argue against the proposed settlement in the public comment forum and again at the settlement hearing," he wrote.
Hogan also wrote that allowing the intervention could show he was prejudiced against the deal because the groups made it clear they opposed the agreement.
The groups and Lesniak sought to become a party to the suit because they wanted an opportunity to appeal if the court approves the settlement over polluted land, including industrial sites in Bayonne and Linden.
A key sticking point has been the inclusion in the proposal of 16 other facilities across the state as well as 1,700 gas stations, most of which are still operating. The environmental groups, including the New Jersey Audubon Society, New Jersey Sierra Club and NY/NJ Baykeeper, say the extent of the pollution at those sites is unclear and should be made public.
Lesniak says he will file an advisory brief with the court to oppose the proposal. New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel says the groups are considering filing briefs as well.
"This fight is far from over," Lesniak said "The administration and Exxon are working together as allies but the people need a voice in the case."
Hogan was unpersuaded by Lesniak's case that because he represents the areas affected by the pollution he should be permitted to intervene.
"To allow a state legislator to intervene in a matter because it impacts his/her district would set a precedent by which any legislator could claim an interest any time litigation concerns property or transactions that affect his district," Hogan wrote.
The state and ExxonMobil are scheduled to argue for approval of the settlement before Hogan on July 21.