Murphy flouting voters’ will on Exxon settlement, groups say

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is flouting a voter-approved ballot measure that says cash from natural resources legal settlements must be used for pollution cleanup by proposing to use much of a $225 million settlement with Exxon to plug a general fund gap, say environmental advocates and a former lawmaker who opposed the Chris Christie-era deal.

The settlement is among the largest of its kind in state history, was agreed to by the former Republican governor and led lawmakers last year to put a question on the ballot requiring the funds from such deals be used for pollution cleanup. Christie had similarly proposed using the funds to help ease budget constraints.

The amendment passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote, but the cash had been held up in escrow because a group of four environmental organizations and former Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak challenged the deal. They argued it was just pennies on the dollar, down from $8.9 billion the administration had earlier sought.

But the appeals ran out this month after the Supreme Court denied the group’s and Lesniak’s request.

That move comes at the same time that Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned as a friend of the environment and with support from environmental groups, announced his intention to flout the amendment, since its adoption came after the deal was reached.

“It would be going against the will of the people that they expressed at the ballot box,” Lesniak said in an interview.

Instead of using the cash to clean up the sites, including nearly century-old petroleum refineries in Bayonne and Linden, Murphy wants to use just $50 million for cleanup. Another $50 million has to go toward legal fees. The rest — $125 million — would go to the cash strapped general fund.

The Murphy administration’s move has angered environmental groups in the state. They say Murphy told them he supported using the cash for pollution cleanup and is now doing just what Christie wanted to do.

“People were victimized once by the pollution. They’re being victimized again because this is their money,” said New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel.

Tittel says he’s appealing to lawmakers to include budget language or a bill to tie Murphy’s hands so that the money can be used only for cleanup. If that does not work, he says a legal challenge could be pursued.

Murphy and lawmakers face a June 30 budget deadline, with the governor facing a reluctant Legislature that has questioned the need for his nearly $1.7 billion in new taxes. At the same time, the general fund is strapped for cash in part because Christie and lawmakers lowered the sales tax and phased out the estate tax.

The Murphy administration says it’s committed to holding polluters accountable and “fully supports the constitutional amendment approved by voters,” but doesn’t believe it applies to the Exxon settlement, which was reached before the amendment was approved.

The tight budget is also a factor.

“Given the fiscal challenges we inherited, the remaining $125 million is designated for the General Fund to help the state meet its obligations,” said Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Sciortino.

The state’s legal fight against Exxon dates to 2004, when New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection brought suit against Exxon over decades of pollution at two oil refineries in Bayonne and Linden.

A months-long trial was about to result in a judge’s decision when Christie’s administration and Exxon announced the settlement.

The 2015 deal also included the settlement of claims concerning more than 1,000 retail gas station sites and additional refinery locations across the state that were not initially part of the litigation.