LETTER – Voters Should Vote YES on Ballot Q2 to Protect Enviro Funds

On November 7th, we’re encouraging NJ citizens to vote YES on Ballot Question #2 to dedicate environmental settlement funds to environmental clean-ups. This will block future administrations from robbing the money meant for repairing, preserving, or restoring natural resources. In NJ, these resources are held in the Public Trust. If you spill chemicals and destroy them, you not only have to clean-up your mess, but also compensate the public for their loss. Governor Christie has turned environmental settlements into his personal slush fund to plug budget holes.

“Governor Christie has turned environmental settlements into his private slush funds. He’s been stealing the money to plug holes in the budget and give tax cuts to the wealthy This is money should be going to clean up polluted sites and help communities who have been affected by the contamination. It should be going to restoring wetlands, cleaning up streams, planting trees, rebuilding parks, protecting our drinking water, and other issues that arise after a community has been devastated by toxic contamination. Instead, Christie uses it to his own advantage and those communities don’t see it,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We’re rushing to get this passed on the November ballot because Governor Christie is trying to steal the settlement money from recent MTBE settlements against companies like Shell and Sunoco.”

In New Jersey, under the Spill Act if you spill chemicals and destroy natural resources, you not only have to clean-up your mess, but also compensate the public for loss of use. New Jersey has a Public Trust Doctrine that means natural resources belong to all of us. What has been happening is with the Governor Christie’s budget language he can steal environmental settlements to plug budget holes and give tax breaks to the wealthy. Since, the Christie Administration has settled five major Natural Resource Damage settlements totaling $235 million from MTBE lawsuits. They are trying to settle these cases quickly before the referendum is passed. In total, there is more than $500 million available from all of the environmental settlements settled by the Christie Administration.

“In New Jersey, natural resources are held in the public trust, in Christie’s budget he can use these settlement monies for other purposes. Communities in NJ have been victimized twice; once by the pollution and twice by Christie stealing the settlement money. Under the current budget language, $50 million from environmental settlements can go to DEP for lawyer fees and environmental programs. For example, he stole $140 million from the Passaic River settlement to balance the budget. This not only hurts the environment, but hurts the taxpayers,” said Jeff Tittel.

Constitutional dedication of monies received by the state in Natural Resource Damage litigation is critical given the Christie administration’s track record and the language in the current FY2016 budget that would allow up to $175 million to be diverted from the Exxon settlement to the General Fund. The budget allows Governor Christie to transfer any money from the Exxon settlement agreement over $50 million to the state General Fund under the currently proposed FY2016 budget language. Most of the remaining $50 million will go to lawyer fees, leaving almost nothing for the people who have been affected by the pollution. He has done this in the past, taking $140 million from the Passaic River cleanup litigation in the current budget.

“People are outraged by the Exxon Settlement, now he is doing his last Gold Rush to steal money from 5 other settlements. With these settlements, they have allowed Sunoco, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, and more to get away with a pave and wave. We don’t even know if this money is pennies on the dollar because there isn’t enough time to compare them to other MTBE cases across the country or know what the original charge was. When you sell out the public and let the polluters off the hook, it sends a message that you can get away with anything,” said Jeff Tittel.

The Public Trust Doctrine means that rivers, streams, wetlands, marshes and fisheries are held in trust by government for the people. Under the New Jersey Spill Act of 1977, when you damage those resources you have to pay for loss of public use as well as for damages to those natural resources.

“While we are still in Court against the Exxon Settlement, if we lose the Christie Administration can steal over $400 million from all of these settlements. The Exxon Settlement is the biggest corporate giveaway in state history and would allow Exxon to get away over a hundred years of contamination at 18 sites and 800 gas stations. Wetlands, groundwater, waterways, and fisheries belong to the people of New Jersey and are held in the public trust. Polluters should be held responsible to pay for the damages to natural resources and the money must go where it is intended,” said Jeff Tittel. “We need people to vote Yes to block future administrations from robbing money for environmental clean ups. We need to stop the Great Environmental Heist.’”

Additionally, the legislature needs to change the law that the legislature passed in 1999 that prevented the DEP from collecting Natural Resource Damages through a program. Instead the only way to collect or access Natural Resource Damages was to go to court. The DEP has a program in place that would have automatically assessed damages to environment and assess a penalty. The legislature took the side of the polluters by forcing the state to go to court, setting up this dirty deal. The legislature can and should compel the DEP to put in place regulations so that the formula is clear and transparent to everyone on how much polluters actually owe the people of New Jersey for dumping toxic chemicals into our environment.

“We need to pass the constitutional dedication on environmental settlements to prevent Governors like Christie from violating the Public Trust. The only thing green about Governor Christie is the money he steals from environmental settlements. People must vote Yes for the constitutional dedication so that the communities and people who have been impacted by this pollution get the programs and environmental protections that they deserve,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We hope everyone comes out on November 7th and votes YES on Ballot Question #2 to protect these funds and make sure polluters pay to clean up their messes!”–

Jamie Zaccaria
New Jersey Sierra Club