Lesniak, environmental groups continue fight against Exxon settlement

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The $225 million settlement in August between ExxonMobil and the state — which appeared to end a contentious, 11-year court battle — is being appealed by environmental groups and emphatically disputed by Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who is also now arguing that corporations such as Exxon are evading New Jersey taxes.}

Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan had barred any legal action from several environmental groups following the settlement. Those parties are now asking the state Appellate Division to overturn the decision, which would pave the way for a formal appeal of the Exxon case.

When Judge Hogan approved the settlement, which was brought down from the state’s original asking price of $8.9 billion, the governor’s office and Exxon expressed satisfaction that the prolonged court battle was over. It had originated in 2004, when the state argued Exxon was responsible for widespread environmental pollution.

Areas contaminated by oil spills and leakage, the state’s attorneys argued, included more than 1,500 acres of wetlands and marshes and more across 18 facilities in New Jersey, including the Bayway Refinery in Linden.

Exxon admitted no wrongdoing in the 81-page settlement, though. And Judge Hogan found that “the court finds that the proposed consent judgement is fair, reasonable, in the public interest, and consistent with the goals of the Spill Compensation and Control Act. It therefore approves the Consent Judgement.”

Environmental activists are among those who have vocalized their discontent with the decision, which will reward the state with 2.5 percent of what it originally asked for, in court.

From his office in Trenton, Lesniak has also planted himself firmly against the settlement, regularly using strong language to denounce the judgement.

“This miscarriage of justice will not stand. Judge Hogan has denied the public its right to appeal the biggest environmental contamination case in the history of the state,” said Lesniak, in a statement issued from his office. “I will not only appeal the denial of a right to appeal, I will file an Environmental Rights Action that will blow the settlement to smithereens.”

The Democratic Senator’s objections don’t stop at the nature of the settlement, either. A tax write-off will see Exxon paying out about $150 million instead of the agreed-upon $225 million, and the oil company is already “using accounting
manipulations to avoid paying NJ’s 9 percent corporate business tax,” said Lesniak, citing an investigation from New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“Multi-State corporations like ExxonMobil have been caught evading NJ taxes. My legislation will make them pay,” said Lesniak, who highlighted tax refunds that Exxon has received since 2010. “The worst offender, no surprise, is ExxonMobil, which has paid an average of 2.4 percent over the past five years.”

Since the settlement was announced in August, Lesniak, along with a handful of environmental groups, has filed motions to intervene, which were all denied. But despite these setbacks, the senator and environmental groups have said they would continue their challenges on multiple occasions.

Such an appeal hinges on one particular aspect of the settlement, according to Lesniak: Whether or not Exxon has to clean up Morses Creek, a Union County property which is adjacent to the Bayway Refinery.

The settlement says that ExxonMobil does not have to clean up Morses Creek until Phillips 66, which now owns the refinery, closes the Linden Bayway Refinery — but no one expects the facility to close anytime soon.

“I will be filing a request to appeal and intervene before Judge Hogan,” said Lesniak, in a previous Localsource report. “We will be appealing to overturn the entire settlement. This issue is the lynchpin because it is a clear violation of the law. This is the lynchpin that would overturn the entire settlement and put the damage amount in the hands of the judge where it should have been in the first place.”

In a related story, Federal Environmental Protection Agency just recently released the Toxic Release Inventory report. The report tracks the management and release of toxic chemicals that may pose a risk to public health and the environment.
In the report, the EPA says there were 10.9 million pounds of of chemicals released by 383 facilities in 2013, the most recent year data was available. It will likely come as no surprise that the biggest polluters were petroleum factories, and Linden, the home of the Bayway Refinery, topped the list with 2.86 million pounds of chemicals released. According to the Right-To-Know Network, the Phillips 66 Bayway Refinery accounted for 2.4 million of those pounds.

Regional Editor Patrick Bober contributed to this story.