UNION COUNTY, NJ — For 58 years Arlene Dudas has lived a stone’s throw from where ExxonMobil dumped petroleum products and toxic chemicals into the marshes and creeks near her home. When she heard the state accepted $225 million to settle an $8.9 billion damages lawsuit, this Linden resident had bitter words for Gov. Chris Christie.
“I remember the refinery explosion in 1970. It shook our homes, broke windows and scared all of us living in this neighborhood,” said the McGillvray Place resident, adding that Exxon was quick to remediate things back then.
“My, have times changed. Gov. Chris Christie has made their lives very easy, but he probably couldn’t find our community on a map,” said Dudas, 80, adding the governor should “come on down here and see for himself.”
Dudas was one of many attending a press conference on March 13 held by Democrat state Sen. Ray Lesniak and a contingent of other lawmakers and local elected officials. Included were residents who gathered next to a softball field in Linden to talk about the effects of living adjacent to a toxic zone.
With a strong, unrelenting, bitter cold wind blowing across the deserted ball field, Lesniak took to the podium to explain why he called the press conference.
“We’ve been cheated,” said Lesniak, explaining to the handful of residents and media that Christie sent “a curveball,” when it came to the Exxon settlement.
“I want to make it clear that we always knew Exxon was responsible for the cleanup of that site,” he said, explaining the lawsuit negotiated by state officials at the 11th hour for 3 cents on the dollar was for restoration and economic value damages.
Lesniak, who grew up in Elizabeth, said at issue is the damages Linden and Bayonne have encountered as a result, including the toxic effects from pollutants seeping into the groundwater.
“Gov. Christie is not asking them to pay for what they did. This settlement shocks the conscience,” said Lesniak, who is fighting against the settlement.
Lesniak is referring to the fact that the state recently settled a decade-long pollution lawsuit against ExxonMobil for $225 million, a fraction of the $8.9 billion New Jersey had been seeking for years. But, while Democratic lawmakers were shocked over the negotiated amount, Christie and other Republican lawmakers touted the settlement as “historic and the largest settlement payment negotiated by a single corporate defendant – ever.”
Litigation for the actual cleanup of the area was a separate issue previously litigated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and settled. It is expected ExxonMobil will have to pay billions for the cleanup, which some have estimated could run as high as $4 billion or more.
According to press statements from the governor’s office, though, the settlement was a good one, considering the highest award for a similar case was just $25.2 million and the 13 largest settlements negotiated prior to Christie taking office average only $4.19 million.
In statements last week Christie also made it clear that ExxonMobil has to fix everything they polluted up to state standards “no matter what it costs and we’re going to get $225 million on top of it.”
Lesniak, though, was not impressed by anything the governor had to say about the chemical and petroleum product pollution that has seeped into over 1,500 acres of land in Linden since the early 1900s as a result of pipeline ruptures, tank failures, overflows and explosions.
In fact, he was angry the state even ventured to negotiate such a deal right before a Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan was about to hand down a ruling on the matter.
However, in January state officials apparently asked Hogan to hold off on a decision so settlement talks could proceed between the state and ExxonMobil, according to an article in The New York Times two weeks ago.
Lesniak explained at the press conference that although he does not like to get personal about issues, in this case he had no choice.
“Look at that field,” said the senator, referring to the ball field behind him, asking the governor “do you want your children playing on that field? Absolutely not.”
The senator, who is challenging the settlement, said the issue is not only remediation of the damaged waterways, creeks and marshes, but also restoration of the area.
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead felt the amount, and circumstances surrounding the settlement, left too many unanswered questions.
“We should all be outraged that Gov. Christie would settle for pennies on the dollar,” he said, adding “I don’t trust Exxon to clean up Linden.”
“This should be overseen by the state and Linden,” the mayor said, pointing out that his children and grandchildren have to live in the city with this pollution nearby.
“We should be calling on Judge Hogan to reject this settlement,” added Armstead.
Daniel Yamakaitis, a Kean University student who has lived his entire life in the area adjacent to the polluted site, said the governor had “undermined the cause of the great state of New Jersey.”
“This settlement is a sweetheart deal. It’s what you get if you make a contribution to the Republican Governors Association,” said the resident, referring to records filed with the Internal Revenue Service showing ExxonMobil donated $500,000 to the RGA in 2014 when Christie chaired the group.
Environmentalists, such as Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club, have outright accused Christie, who is seriously considering a run for president in 2016, of creating a “snow job in the middle of a blizzard.”
Tittel, along with others, continue to slam Christie for portraying the settlement as a victory, even though ExxonMobil had already been found liable for contamination of refinery sites in Linden and Bayonne.
Also worrying Democrat lawmakers is the fear the majority of the $225 million will never go toward restoring economic value of Linden and Bayonne, but rather toward the current budget deficit.
Under the appropriations bill signed by the governor in June, the first $50 million the state obtains “in natural resource, cost recoveries and other associated damages” must be deposited into a fund for hazardous discharge cleanup.”
The law further states that all money obtained beyond the first $50 million “shall be diverted to the general fund.”
Even though Democrat lawmakers sought to change that clause so any dollars beyond the initial $50 million would be allocated to environmental programs, Christie vetoed that particular language in the bill.
Democrat State Sen. Nick Scutari, the elected official whose district includes Linden, told those attending the press conference Friday that he played softball on the field adjacent to the contaminated ExxonMobil site and he believed the public should know the truth about the settlement.
“We deserve to know why it is being settled so cheaply,” he said, pointing out that many of the elected officials gathered that day were lawyers “who would never settle anything for 3 cents on the dollar.”
Union County Democratic Freeholder Chris Hudak had an emotional stake in what was happening because he grew up on McGillvray Place.
“This community is one of several neighborhoods like this which dot the perimeter of the Exxon site,” he said, noting that while Linden is 11 square miles, a great deal of it includes the Bayway refinery.
“Let’s be clear. This settlement is about filling a budget gap,” Hudak said, as a cold wind whipped across the ball field where he once played as a child. “It’s about sending millions into the budget to balance it one time and that does nothing for the people here.”
Jerry Green, 22nd District assemblyman and chairman of the Union County Democratic, party made a brief statement, but those gathered on that bitter cold morning applauded after he finished speaking.
“This is not even negotiable,” the assemblyman said, telling the governor “this is the real world and you are not going to dump on us.”
Although there is considerable uproar over the settlement, it remains a “proposed” deal that still will have a trial by fire next month. Details of the proposed settlement have yet to be made public, but on April 6 it will be published in the New Jersey Register. After that there will be a 30-day public comment period and then the settlement has to be approved by a state Superior Court judge.
In an op-ed published two weeks ago in The New York Times, Bradley M. Campbell, former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, who authorized the lawsuit against ExxonMobil in 2004, called the deal a “disgrace and embarrassment to law enforcement and good government.”
Campbell said in the op-ed that state colleagues told him the governor’s chief counsel “elbowed aside the attorney general and career employees” who developed and prosecuted the litigation “and cut a deal favorable to Exxon.”
Adding further intrigue into the issue of the settlement is that while acting Attorney General John Hoffman has been charged with leading this office for more than a year, the governor has yet to nominate him to be confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate.