Environmentalists in New Jersey launched a court battle Friday to halt a deal between the state and Exxon Mobil over pollution, arguing the agreement lets the oil giant off the hook for potentially devastating pollution.
"There's no one in this case representing the legal interests of the people of New Jersey," State senator Ray Lesniak told the court, according to NJ.com.
The statement was made during a hearing to determine whether Lesniak and a coalition of environmental groups are able to intervene in the decade-old case. The court is expected to rule on whether the environmentalists can intervene early next week.
The controversy began in 2004, when the state filed a suit accusing Exxon Mobil of devastating vast swathes of countryside including wetlands with pollution from its Bayonne and Bayway refineries.
Environmentalists say they now want a say in the case, after a slew of eleventh hour changes were recently made to the settlement between the state and Exxon Mobil. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, at the last minute Exxon Mobil was offered to be cleared of liability for pollution at hundreds of potentially polluted sites, ranging from gas stations to large industrial facilities.
Environmentalists are also angered by the bread and butter of the settlement: a one-off US$225 million payout from the oil company. The figure is just a fraction of the US8.9 billion originally demanded by the state's environmental agency. Critics say the cash is barely enough for environmental authorities to even start cleaning up polluted sites, with a large chunk of the cash expected to go towards covering the state's legal fees.
In a court filing, Exxon Mobil expressed opposition to the environmentalists' bid, arguing, “Not only is their intervention unwarranted, but it would only serve to complicate and lengthen an already old and complex case.”
The state has previously defended its performance in the case, arguing it got the best deal possible out of the multi-billion dollar company.
Governor Chris Christie has spoken out in favor of the settlement since it was suddenly announced last month.
According to a recent report from the New York Times, prior to the settlement, Christie's administration had twice urged the court to hold off on a ruling, arguing the state and company were close to a deal.
The International Business Times reported the reduction in the settlement amount followed “a wave of campaign cash from the company to the Christie-run Republican Governors Association.”
The business website cited federal records as showing Exxon Mobil has contributed around US$1.9 million to the association since Christie became governor.