McKeon, Quijano & Schaer Bill to Extend Public Notice of Pending Environmental Settlements Continues Advancing

Bill stems from Christie administration’s decision to settle with Exxon for $225 million despite asking for $8.9 billion in damages; decision has raised questions about motive

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats John McKeon, Annette Quijano and Gary Schaer to better inform the public about environmental settlements being considered by the state was advanced by a Senate committee on Monday.

The bill is in response to Gov. Christie’s decision to settle with Exxon Mobil for a fraction of what the state asked for in damages for contamination and loss of use of more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, marshes, meadows and waters in northern New Jersey. The decision has been chastised and many critics have accused the governor of quietly settling to use the money to balance the budget.

“The many concerns surrounding the Exxon Mobil settlement make it a glaring example of why the public notice timeframe needs changing,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “The questionable size of the settlement, the extent of the damage and the length of time involved with this litigation make a 30-day public notice period inadequate. More time is appropriate for this – and all future settlements.”

“The decision by the administration to settle for less merits scrutiny. Residents, especially those living in the communities directly impacted by the contamination, deserve to be heard,” said Quijano (D-Union). “This bill gives the public ample time to digest this information and voice any concerns they may have about the terms of environmental settlements being eyed by the state, especially when the benefits of the settlement don’t add up.”

The bill (A-4307) would require the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to provide at least 60 days public notice prior to entering into a settlement pursuant to the Spill Compensation and Control Act. Current law requires the DEP to provide at least 30 days public notice prior to agreeing to an administrative or judicially approved settlement.

These public notices are published in the New Jersey Register and on the department’s website and include the name of the case, the names of the parties to the settlement, the location of the property on which the discharge occurred and a summary of the terms of the settlement, including the amount of any monetary payments made or to be made. The bill would take effect immediately.

“Considering the great magnitude of the Exxon Mobil settlement, to think that 30 days is sufficient time for the public to review, comprehend and produce a well-informed opinion on the matter simply is ludicrous,” said Schaer (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Extending the public notice requirement to 60 days will do much in the way of increasing transparency and fostering more productive public engagement.”

The bill, which in March received Assembly approval 70-3-0, was released by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.