A Gift to ExxonMobil? Chris Christie Criticized over Settlement to Clean Up Century of Contamination

StoryMarch 20, 2015
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State senators in New Jersey have voted to condemn a $225 million settlement between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and ExxonMobil, which saved the oil giant billions of dollars. New Jersey quietly agreed to accept less than 3 percent of the $8.9 billion it had initially sought from Exxon over pollution at two refinery sites. That amounts to just three cents on the dollar. On Monday, lawmakers asked a judge to reject the deal, calling it "grossly inappropriate, improper and inadequate." We speak to Bob Hennelly, political analyst and investigative reporter for WBGO, Newark’s NPR station and a regular contributor to Salon, City and State and WhoWhatWhy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a controversial settlement involving another oil giant closer to home. This week, state senators in New Jersey voted to condemn a $225 million settlement reportedly pushed through by the office of Republican Governor Chris Christie, which saved ExxonMobil billions of dollars. New Jersey quietly agreed to accept less than 3 percent of the $8.9 billion it had initially sought from Exxon over pollution at two refinery sites. That amounts to just three cents on the dollar. On Monday, lawmakers asked a judge to reject the deal, calling it "grossly inappropriate, improper and inadequate." Adding to outrage over the settlement, Governor Christie is already planning to use much of the money from the settlement to plug holes in New Jersey’s budget, instead of for environmental restoration.

AMY GOODMAN: To give you an idea of the extent of the damage, the language of a 2008 ruling in the settlement called for a much more substantial damages award due to the environmental destruction ExxonMobil has caused to the area around its refinery in Bayonne, New Jersey. Then Judge Ross Anzaldi wrote, quote, "It was estimated in 1977 that at least some seven million gallons of oil ranging in thickness from 7 to 17 feet, are contained in the soil and groundwater underlying a portion of the former Bayonne site alone. ... The level of hydrocarbon contamination was so high one creek was covered with 'a gelatinous, oily emulsion overlying grey silt.'"

Well, for more, we’re joined by reporter Bob Hennelly, political analyst, investigative reporter for WBGO, Newark’s NPR station, and a regular contributor to Salon and City and State and WhoWhatWhy.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bob.

BOB HENNELLY: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about this deal.

BOB HENNELLY: Well, you know, as the prime minister was saying from Ecuador, they go back decades. In the case of these sites, they go back to before the turn of the century. This was really where Standard Oil first flexed its industrial muscle. So we’re talking about over a century of contamination. And there was a New Jersey—three governors before Governor Christie had been making this case. It looked like they were going to win a big settlement. In 2008, they actually had a liability judgment on behalf of them against Exxon, which set the stage for what looked to be at least a $2.9—or more—billion settlement.

This is critical because what’s happened is, under the law, these lands—these riparian lands, these saltwater marshes, these freshwater wetlands—are actually owned by the public. It goes back to the Magna Carta. It’s a concept that wildlife and the rest is held by the state in trust for the public. And when an entity despoils or degrades it—in many cases, there’s been fish advisories, people can’t consume the fish from it—there’s a consequence. And it has to be paid for by the entity, and there has to be full restoration, not just of the site, but of the entire natural system that they destroyed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bob, I want to turn to Governor Chris Christie. He says the $225 million settlement with ExxonMobil is on top of what the oil giant will pay to clean up contaminated sites in New Jersey.

BOB HENNELLY: Well, I guess the thing here—OK.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let’s just hear him first.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: You would think that the $225 million was all we got, right? Right? Wrong. Two hundred twenty-five million is on top of what they have to pay to fix what they polluted. And there is no cap. They have to re—they have to not re—they have to fix everything that they’ve polluted up to state standards, and there is no cap on what they have to pay.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Governor Chris Christie recently. Could you talk about that and also his connection to Exxon?

BOB HENNELLY: Right. Nothing happens in a void. He was chair of the Republican Governors Association and received $750,000 from ExxonMobil for the Republican Governors Association. Millions of dollars from the energy sector flowed to the RGA while he was chairman. It’s also important to understand that we’re talking about a concept in law which he really doesn’t seem to fully grasp, which is that this is a compensation for the loss of this natural resource for generations. Our problem is that Newark Bay doesn’t have the romance of the Hudson River. People get the Hudson River because of the late Pete Seeger’s work. Newark Bay is kind of an orphan. It’s surrounded by New York and New Jersey. It’s a bistate estuary. People of color, immigrant communities, this is where they get their start and where they live. And so, there hasn’t been a conceptualized sense that it once was this rich fishery. Do you know that at one time this area produced enough oyster meat and clam that this was a major thing people used back in the 19th century to subsidize their families’ basic needs? We’ve lost that ecological memory. And so, Exxon has to pay a price for being part of the diminishment and degradation of it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio responding to your question, Bob Hennelly, about New Jersey’s settlement with Exxon, during a news conference that you attended yesterday.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: I’m absolutely concerned. First of all, I’m concerned because if a company—in this case, Exxon—has created damage to the environment and public health, they have to compensate for it. They have to make it right. We saw that with the BP oil spill in the Gulf. We’ve seen that many time with the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. There’s supposed to be a rigorous process for ensuring that the environment is restored. I don’t know the details of this settlement, but if the dollar figure is so low that the work can’t be done, I’m very uncomfortable with what that means for the people of New York. And, you know, we’ll certainly look into it further and decide what course of action we want to take.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s answer.

BOB HENNELLY: That’s a big deal. That’s a big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can respond to the significance of this—


AMY GOODMAN: —and also why you think Governor Christie made this deal?

BOB HENNELLY: OK. I think that it’s important to understand that, first, this isn’t a done deal. Much like net neutrality, there’s a public comment period in April. We’re hoping for an international response, as we do in solidarity with Ecuador, that we not set the ruling for three cents on the dollar, because if that’s what we get here, what are they going to get in places like Ecuador? The idea that Mayor de Blasio is stepping up and being a bioregional steward shows a breakthrough in political thinking, because this estuary has to be managed by all the political players. Why Governor Christie did what he did? He’s running for president. All we know is that he goes to Iowa and backs ethanol. He seems to be directing his campaign not where the votes are, but where the cash is.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to turn to another New Jersey story that you’re very familiar with—one of the New Jersey senators, one of the leaders of the Senate Democrats, Bob Menendez, a recent report showed there’s a continuing federal investigation of him that may lead to an indictment. Could you talk about that case?

BOB HENNELLY: We’ve both been in this business a long time. A little troubled—and I don’t know if you ever heard of the phrase "is expected to be arrested by the end of the month." Generally, when they take you into custody, like Shel Silver, you’re in custody. So, I am aware—you know, I think sometimes we take anonymous sources from law enforcement, which can be used by prosecutors to try and to drive a case. Senator Menendez—in my piece in Salon, I write it up as a spaghetti western, "come get me" Menendez. I think he wants to stand his ground, because, remember, he’s been chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. He’s had some important predecessors who have also had trouble with the law but never gone to jail. Jon Corzine, he lost a whole bank. Bob Torricelli liked luxury goods. And these guys are kind of bulletproof. So I think the people on K Street in Washington should be really worried if this goes to trial, because he’ll put on trial the way they do their business.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Hennelly, we want to thank you, and we’re going to link to all of your articles. Independent reporter Bob Hennelly, investigative reporter for WBGO, Newark’s NPR station, a regular contributor to Salon and City and State and WhoWhatWhy.

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