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Concerns Abound Over Paltry Enviro Settlement

(CN) - Though New Jersey wanted $8.9 billion to cover massive wetlands pollution, it quietly settled for just $250 million, anonymous sources told the New York Times.

It has been just over a decade since the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sued Exxon Mobil, leading up to a trial last year that focused only on what Exxon would face in environmental damages.

Land and water contamination at the refineries "began as early as the 1870s in Bayonne and the early 1900s in Bayway and continues to this day," the state's expert report says.

"Today, many of these dredge fill areas still look and smell like petroleum waste dumps," the report continues. "Spilled materials from pipeline ruptures, tank failures or overflows, and explosions have resulted in widespread groundwater, soil and sediment contamination."

New Jersey estimated that primary restoration of the sites would cost $2.6 billion, and it sought $6.3 billion for what it described as compensatory or "loss of use" damages.

Judge Michael Hogan was to rule once closing briefs were filed in November.

Exxon in its brief said that "evidence, science and the law" show the firm should pay no damages, as it started cleaning up long ago, and that marshes, forests and wildlife were "fully functioning" on the sites, which were closed for years, and thus "never lost" to the public.

Though Gov. Chris Christie's administration called the scope of the damage "as obvious as it is staggering and unprecedented in New Jersey" in its closing brief, the group twice asked the state court to hold off on a ruling in January, insisting settlement talks were underway.

The state then informed the judge on Feb. 20 that the case had been resolved for $250 million - less than 3 percent of the damages sought.

Two anonymous sources cited leaked the information to the Times, which noted Friday that New Jersey still has not publicly announced the deal, which needs approval from the judge.

The Times has reportedly requested the files that referenced the settlement, saying legal and environmental experts questioned why the case settled so suddenly.

There is a "striking disparity" between the damages claimed and the settlement amount, Richard Stewart, a New York University law professor and a former head of the Justice Department's environmental division under President George Bush, told the Times.

The article notes that Exxon has made annual contributions to the Republican Governors Association since at least 2008, including a $500,000 contribution in May 2014, when Christie was chairman.

Since New Jersey law allows diversion of funds beyond the first $50 million to balancing the state budget, a state fiscal analyst told the Times some or even none of the money may go toward environmental costs in the Exxon case if the deal is approved.

Debbie Mans, the executive director of the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, reportedly called the proposed deal "a travesty" and asked the judge to "reject the settlement outright."

The Times claims Christie is experiencing the lowest approval ratings of his tenure, and that the state Sierra Club says Christie's budget proposal would harm environmental protections.

Richard Engel, a deputy state attorney general, reportedly said the settlement agreement will be submitted for public comment in April and for court approval in May, unless public comments "necessitate a change."

According to the Times, if the settlement is approved, Judge Hogan will presumably not release his opinion or make public whatever damages he would have set.

The Times further reported that after Christie's spokesman referred settlement questions to the attorney general's office, that office's spokesman said last week that it had no comment.

Exxon reportedly also declined to comment on the settlement.

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