Reacting to the state's proposed $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil, New Jersey lawmakers Thursday advanced measures requiring that more money from environmental settlements be used for cleanup and extending the time the public has to comment before it is approved.
The bills passed by the Assembly's Judiciary Committee would require that one half of any money recovered over $50 million is used for cleanup, and they extend the public comment period from 30 days to 60.
Democrats and environmental groups say the state accepted pennies on the dollar over polluted sites in Linden and Bayonne. New Jersey had initially sued for $8.9 billion in damages, and a judge heard evidence last year and was in the process of reaching a damage amount when the two sides recently announced the settlement.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie's 2016 budget includes a proposal that calls for the first $50 million of natural-resources settlements to go toward cleanup, with the rest going into the general fund. Christie has said Exxon Mobil is on the hook for cleanup efforts beyond the $225 million settlement.
"Residents have been terribly shortchanged by this settlement. Using these funds as a short-term budget fix adds insult to injury," said Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon, the committee chairman who co-sponsored the bills.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts called Thursday's hearing "another act in the partisan political theater we've seen for weeks" on the settlement.
"When you move past the willful misinformation campaign and partisan scare tactics at work here, the facts speak for themselves that this is a historic and fair settlement for the people of New Jersey that had been in the works since" Gov. Jon Corzine's administration, Roberts said.
Exxon Mobil has spent about $260 million under Department of Environmental Protection supervision on cleanup at both sites since 1991, company spokesman Todd Spitler said this month.
"We have already been cleaning up in these sites for about 10 years and are committed under a legal agreement with the state to continue that cleanup until they're satisfied," Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson said earlier this month. "So the lawsuit that's been talked about has nothing to do with cleanup. We're already doing that."
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said at Thursday's hearing that he is concerned about the settlement and doesn't trust large corporations to be responsible for cleanup.
"I don't trust them any more than I'd trust my 8-year-old daughter to clean her room. Oversight is required," he said, calling on lawmakers to "do what is necessary to hold ExxonMobil accountable."