Friday, July 10, 2015

NJ enviros get their day in court over Exxon settlement

A N.J. Superior Court judge heard two hours of testimony this morning on whether to allow seven environmental groups and a state senator to intervene in the proposed environmental damages settlement between the state and ExxonMobil. 

Following the testimony, Judge Michael Hogan said that he would announce his decision on the intervention issue on Monday or Tuesday and rule on the settlement itself next month.

The Associated Press's Michael Catalini  reports:

The groups and (Senator Raymond) Lesniak oppose the proposed $225 million settlement on the grounds that it’s just a fraction of the $8.9 billion the state had earlier argued ExxonMobil owed. The case stretches back to 2004 when the state brought a suit alleging that over roughly a century ExxonMobil polluted two northern New Jersey sites in Bayonne and Linden.
The groups also take issue with part of the proposal that clears the company of responsibility at 16 petroleum sites across the state as well as 1,700 gas stations. The inclusion of those sites became public only in April.
“We want to be fully heard,” said Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Margaret Brown after the hearing. “But we also want to reserve the right to appeal on the merits of the case.”
State attorney Allan Kanner argued that the groups and Lesniak should instead submit advisory briefs to the court. He said the 60-day public comment period that preceded Friday’s hearing offered ample time for them to air their views. Lesniak said such briefs would not enable him to appeal a ruling.
Kanner also argued that the groups’ proposed intervention could complicate the case and create mini trials within the larger trial.
“You cannot come into a case that’s 11 years old and be coy about what you want to do,” Kanner said.
Brown said spending more time on the case would be worth it.
“It’s already been a (roughly) 10-year case, so let’s get it right,” she said. “Delaying seems understandable to get the right answer here.”
ExxonMobil attorney Theodore Wells, arguing against the groups and Lesniak, argued if the Legislature intended for groups to intervene, it would have written it in the legislation.
Hogan questioned both sides but cautioned against inferring how he might rule based on his questions.
The proposed $225 million settlement was announced shortly before Hogan was set to rule how much ExxonMobil would have to pay. That deal touched off a wave of political opposition from the Democratic-led Legislature, which passed measures condemning the proposal.
Gov. Chris Christie has argued the settlement is a good deal for the state and represents one of the largest in history.

NJ Advance Media's S.P. Sullivan reports:
State officials have hailed the $225 million agreement as the largest of its kind in state history. Critics have accused Gov. Chris Christie's administration of caving to a corporate polluter that had caused nearly $9 billion worth of damage, according to an expert report commissioned by lawyers for the state.
"There's no one in this case representing the legal interests of the people of New Jersey," state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), who filed a motion to intervene in the case, told Judge Michael Hogan.
Lesniak joined a host of environmental groups — which include New Jersey Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper, NY/NJ Baykeeper, Environment New Jersey, New Jersey Audubon, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Law Clinic at Columbia Law School — seeking to be named a party to the suit.
Attorneys for the state and Exxon separately argued that if the groups had an interest in the case, they should have intervened prior to or during the 2014 trial.
Kanner and Ted Wells, the New York-based attorney handling the case for Exxon, each said the groups could file amicus briefs in the case, but should not be allowed to intervene.
"I was there for nine months," said Allan Kanner, the New Orleans-based environmental attorney who took on the case for the state on a contingency basis in 2004. "It was if no one cared about the trial."
Selena Kyle, an attorney for the Natural Resource Defense Council, said the last-minute addition of 16 industrial sites and hundreds of gas stations to the deal — which was not part of the original suit — invited additional scrutiny to the case.
"There's a lot to the settlement that wasn't part of the trial record," Kyle said.
Kanner said his client, the DEP, had represented the best interest of the public, and had recently responded to the thousands of letters it received during a 60-day public comment period. That response, submitted to the court Thursday night, has been posted on the department's website.
"The people absolutely have a right to be heard and we're absolutely hearing them," he said.
NJ Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said:
We had our day in Court and the Judge heard us loud and clear on how bad this settlement is as well as the scope of pollution at these additional sites. We hope Judge Hogan makes the right decision now that he heard our message for the record. We want to intervene to protect the citizens of the state, the environment, and the public trust since the NJDEP no longer does. This deal is the biggest giveaway in state history.

NY/NJ Baykeeper Debbie Mans said:
The cleanup of this site has been dragging on for years.  ExxonMobil could simply leave the pollution in place, place a cap over it, put a fence around it and walk away.  A cleanup does not restore the natural resources or provide for a functioning ecosystem.  This is what the State’s lawsuit was about, but the proposed settlement will not go nearly far enough to restore what has been lost to the public at the hands of ExxonMobil.

Related news stories:
Judge to rule next week in Exxon case 
Christie administration failed public on Exxon deal, groups tell judge
Big legal showdown tomorrow over NJ-Exxon settlement 
Exxon New Jersey Settlement Under Fire Again

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