TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey residents are one step closer to finding out whether a court will accept a $225 million settlement proposed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his administration in a lawsuit to hold ExxonMobil responsible for environmental damage in the state.
Friday marked the end of a 60-day public comment period on the proposed settlement with Exxon over pollution at two petroleum treatment centers in northern New Jersey, 16 other Exxon facilities and the company's retail gas stations across the state.
The proposal has touched off a public feud between the Christie administration and Democrats, who control the Legislature and say the governor should have bargained for more money in damages. Democrats are urging the court to reject the settlement and set damages at roughly $2.5 billion.
The state Department of Environmental Protection said about 8,800 comments have been filed. Department spokesman Larry Hajna said the high number includes many form letters and emails.
In litigation going back to 2004, the state argued that ExxonMobil contaminated land at two sites in Bayonne and Linden. The court agreed the company was liable, and the question before Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan earlier this year was how much Exxon owed the state. The state filed paperwork with the court claiming nearly $9 billion in damages.
But before the judge ruled, the Christie administration and the Irving, Texas-based corporation announced the proposed settlement, angering Democrats who said the state was accepting pennies on the dollar.
The Christie administration pushed back, saying that the settlement figure would make it among the largest in the state's history and that the nearly $9 billion figure would have led to an appeal and delayed any payout to the state. In addition, the administration argues, Exxon is still required to pay for cleaning up the sites.
Just how much cleanup will cost Exxon is not clear. Current law requires the first $50 million of the settlement amount to go toward cleanup.
Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak says the proposed $2.5 billion in damages is a "very solid" figure but the $5.4 billion in compensatory damages mentioned in court documents — and constituting the remainder of the nearly $9 billion — is "less precise."
In his public comment filed with the department, Senate President Steve Sweeney rebukes the administration and takes issue with the inclusion of gas stations and the 16 other sites.
"The Senate vehemently opposes ratification of the consent judgment as there is no verifiable rationale offered for the inclusion of the 16 additional Exxon sites and the approximately 1,700 retail service stations," he said.
The department will review the public comments and prepare a response. The agency will then determine if any information from the comments would require reconsideration of the settlement proposal. If not, it will be sent to the judge for final approval.