McCabe says just $50M from Exxon settlement will go to DEP

Acting Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe said Tuesday that $50 million of the state’s $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil will go directly to the DEP.

Environmental advocates, outraged by McCabe’s comments during a Senate budget hearing in Trenton, said the state is going back on its promise that most, if not all, of the settlement money would be used to restore natural resources that have been damaged by pollution.

The state announced in 2015 that it had reached a settlement with Exxon over the contamination of more than 1,000 acres in Bayonne and Linden, where the company operated refineries. Environmentalists have argued the settlement, which came more than a decade after the state sued Exxon for $8 billion, was a sweetheart deal struck by the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie.

A number of environmental groups, along with former state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) are appealing the settlement in state Supreme Court, so the funds are not yet available.

In November 2017, New Jersey residents approved a constitutional amendment to place legal settlements and awards from environmental contamination cases into a “lockbox.“ The funds can only be used to restore or replace damaged or lost natural resources, protect natural resources, and pay the legal costs of pursuing settlements and rewards.

McCabe said Tuesday that because the Exxon settlement was struck before the ballot measure was approved, the Murphy administration can divert a portion of the money to the general fund.

 
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“We will be using the $50 [million] that comes to the DEP for natural resource damage restoration projects,” McCabe said. “We don’t have the ability to use that money yet — this is a question of earmarking because it’s still tied up in litigation. But when the funds are released to us, that is how we will be using them.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said Gov. Phil Murphy is breaking campaign promises he made to the environmental community. The Sierra Club is one of the groups appealing the Exxon settlement in the state Supreme Court.

“What I want to say very clearly is not only did Governor Murphy break the commitment he made to the people of New Jersey, they are using the same tactics as the previous administration of grabbing money that was supposed to go to environmental purposes,” Tittel said.

State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Environment and Energy Committee, said in an interview that all of the settlement money should go toward natural resource damages. He said he will seek a legal opinion from the Office of Legislative Services to determine whether the constitutional amendment applies to the settlement.

“I thought the Christie administration was using the money improperly and if we’re doing the same thing, it’s a shame on us,” he said.

In March, the Murphy administration formally opposed efforts to have New Jersey’s highest court review the settlement, a decision that left Lesniak and environmental groups “reeling.”

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