Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What happened at Tuesday's Exxon pollution hearing in NJ

New Jersey environmental groups and State Senator Ray Lesniak were back in court yesterday in Mount Holly asking permission to appeal Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan's approval of the $225 million pollution case settlement between the state and ExxonMobil Corp. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Andrew Seidman covered the hearing and reported:

Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan, sitting in Mount Holly, had rejected the groups' request to intervene while settlement proceedings were underway. Now that the judge has signed off on the agreement, the groups say, they should be able to appeal.

The groups, including the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, want to ensure that the "state and the citizens of the state are getting adequate remedy for damages done to it," their lawyer, Ed Lloyd, told Hogan at a hearing Tuesday. “At this stage in the case, we don't have that remedy."

The groups have argued that the state abdicated its responsibility by settling for a relatively small amount compared with the $8.9 billion it sought at trial last year.

The state's lawyers and environmental regulators counter that the settlement was the best agreement they could reach with ExxonMobil after a decade of litigation. Last month, Hogan called the settlement a "reasonable compromise."

At issue was ExxonMobil's contamination of wetlands at two of the oil giant's sites in North Jersey. The agreement also settled claims over contamination at more than a dozen other sites throughout the state and 1,700 gas stations.

"Both sides find some finality" with the settlement and "can start turning to other affairs," Allan Kanner, special counsel to the state attorney general, told the judge. "That's in the public interest, too."

“If citizens and interest groups can file unlimited appeals to settlements, he said, "then I think we have a problem as well…in terms of getting these cases resolved."

Kanner said an appeal might be reasonable if the groups had presented evidence of collusion or corruption, but that wasn't the case here.

Otherwise, the judge must presume that the Department of Environmental Protection represents the interests of the state and its people, said Ted Wells, an attorney for ExxonMobil.

State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, who is considering running for governor in 2017, also is seeking to appeal the case. But Hogan told Lesniak (D., Union) that he thought the senator's attempt to intervene in court raised constitutional concerns with regard to the separation of powers.

Hogan said he would render a decision by Oct. 9. If he rejects the groups' petition to intervene, they could take their case to the Appellate Division.

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