Friday, December 2, 2016

Legislation seeks to protect enviro-settlement funds in NJ

Scott Fallon of The Record reports on legislation in New Jersey that seeks to guarantee that money awarded in environmental damage law suits is used for the intended purpose--cleaning up the local problem that caused the suit to be filed.

When the Christie administration announced the first of a series of multi-million-dollar settlements with Passaic River polluters in 2013, local officials and environmentalists were elated that so much money was going to help restore one of the nation’s most contaminated waterways.

The joy was short-lived.

Of the $355.4 million recovered by New Jersey, about $288 million was taken by Gov. Chris Christie to balance the state budget. Likewise, only $50 million from the state’s $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil last year, for contamination of properties in Linden and Bayonne, is slated for environmental purposes, with the bulk going to the budget.

Now state lawmakers are trying to block Christie and future governors from diverting environmental court settlements.

Legislation is making its way through Trenton to put a statewide referendum question on the 2017 ballot that would ensure the vast majority of money won in court would be used to restore polluted areas. The bills in the Senate and Assembly would bypass the governor’s veto pen by asking voters to amend the state constitution, much as they did two years ago to ensure the state’s open-space program is consistently funded.

The Senate passed a similar bill last year, but no action was taken in the Assembly. That has led some to question whether Assembly leaders, including Speake

Vincent Prieto, would back the current bill. A spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, who have a majority in that house, did not respond to a request for comment.

Although governors from both parties have taken money from environmental programs to plug budget holes, Christie has brought it to a level never seen before. Along with the court settlements, he has taken more than $1 billion from the state's popular clean-energy program for the general fund since becoming governor in 2010.

“The fact that the money is stolen regularly by every administration, it is critically important we keep it safe and use it appropriately,” Kelly Mooij, vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society, told a Senate panel recently.

The Christie administration has a long-standing policy of not commenting on pending legislation.

Read the full story here

Related news coverage:
Making sure pollution settlements go to restoring natural resources 

State hopes to establish prices for natural-resource damages

Environment NJ's Doug O'Malley on enviro-settlement
money use SCR 39  (Video)

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