TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – A judge lent his stamp of approval Tuesday to the second-largest environmental settlement in New Jersey history, a landmark $225 million payout.
The fruit of seven years of legal wrangling, the settlement finalizes a 10-year legal battle between Exxon Mobil and New Jersey over pollution from the oil giant”s plants in Linden and Bayonne.
Burlington County Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan said he found the deal “fair, reasonable, in the public interest, and consistent with the goals of the  Spill Compensation and Control Act.”
Hogan also lauded the state”s “aggressive trial strategy” and “zealous advocacy.”
New Jersey”s initially estimated the cost of clean up both sites at $2.5 billion.
With the state also seeking an additional $6.3 billion in damages for the lost use of those areas, the $225 million settlement is far less than the state”s nearly $9 billion original demand.
When the settlement was proposed in April, environmental groups and some lawmakers balked, calling it a “sellout” and vowing to scuttle the deal.
Hogan shut down attempts by those groups to join as parties the state”s lawsuit in July, and said they had their chance to speak up via the comment period. That period ended in June.
The Sierra Club”s New Jersey chapter has appealed Hogan”s decision to exclude it as a party to the lawsuit. If the New Jersey Appellate Division does not rule its way, chapter director Jeff Tittel has said the Sierra Club will take the matter to the state Supreme Court.
“We knew going in it would be tough to win, so we filed the appeal,” Tittel said in an interview.
Explaining why his group didn”t join the lawsuit as a party in 2004, Tittel noted that “until last fall, they [the New Jersey government] were doing everything they were supposed to.”
In addition to appealing for intervenor status, the Sierra Club has said it will appeal the settlement directly for allegedly violating a provision of the 1976 Spill Act that requires settlement money to fund restoration.
Tittel said only $50 million of the $225 million is being set aside for restoration, and that massive attorneys” fees will likely absorb most of these funds. The remainder of the settlement money will be used to plug state budget gaps, he said.
“No money is going for restoration,” Tittel said. “It”s a sellout.”
NY/NJ Baykeeper, a nonprofit environmental group that objects to the settlement as well, is appealing Hogan”s decision to forbid outside groups from joining the state”s lawsuit also.
Debbie Mans, who heads the group, said in an interview that the settlement was “frustrating” in that “each branch of [New Jersey] government has not stepped up” to protect citizens.
Mans said her group”s attorneys are evaluating their next steps, which may also include appealing the settlement.
“We are trying to take a long view here” in terms of legal precedent for future environmental lawsuits, Mans added.
New Jersey filed the original lawsuit back in 2004 after oil runoff destroyed 1,700 acres of wetlands and streams. The sites in Linden and Bayonne are considered the most hazardous.
The case finally made it to court in 2014. Initially Gov. Chris Christie called the damage at Linden and Bayonne “staggering and unprecedented in New Jersey.” After nine months in court, however, Christie”s office worked behind the seasons to delay a court judgment and instead craft a settlement with Exxon.
Media reports indicate that Deputy Attorney General Richard Engel had emailed Hogan twice after the trial closed to ask the judge to postpone his decision in the case as a settlement was being negotiated.
Bradley Campbell, who was commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection when the case originated in 2004, has called the settlement “a real betrayal of environmental protection and a betrayal of law enforcement.”
Not surprisingly, state officials today again applauded the settlement.
Acting Attorney General John Hoffman called it “an important settlement” both for New Jerseyans and for the environment. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said it was a “victory for the people of New Jersey” and noted the final payout is six times larger than the previous company-state settlement.
Referencing the 20-year legal battle in the Exxon Valdez litigation, New Jersey has waved off public comments about the settlement by noting that Exxon would have appealed any court judgment.
Exxon gave up its appeal rights under New Jersey”s settlement. A spokesman for the oil giant applauded the deal”s approval Wednesday.
“This settlement has brought this case to a fair and reasonable conclusion,” spokesman Todd Spitler said in an email. “Both parties will now have the benefit of the certainty and finality that comes from this settlement.”‘