LETTER We Must Dedicate Environmental Settlement Funds

For Immediate Release

November 21, 2016

Contact Jeff Tittel,609-558-9100

 

We Must Dedicate Environmental Settlement Funds

The Senate Environment and Energy Hearing is today holding a public hearing on the following Concurrent Resolution:

Dedication of Environmental Settlement Funds SCR39 (Smith) would to dedicate environmental settlement Funds. ACR127 (McKeon) amends the Constitution to ensure all State moneys received from settlements and awards in cases of environmental contamination for certain environmental purposes. The Christie Administration has violated the public trust by taking these funds for other purposes and this delay will further allow more raids for environmental funds.

“There’s a problem with the bill that’s the five percent cap, which will make it impossible for lawyers to take those cases. Without an Amendment to fix this, the bill won’t work. The legislature has been angry about the governor stealing money from the budget and now they have the chance to do something. The Assembly can talk the talk, but they cannot walk the walk. They complained when the Administration took money from the Natural Resource Damage Settlements, the Clean Energy Fund and Clean Communities Program, but they are being complacent in not posting the legislation for environmental settlements. The resolution passed supporting this dedication in the Senate so we know the votes are there,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

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.

“The Christie Administration stole the money from the Passaic River clean-up litigation, victimizing that community first because of the pollution and again by taking the money. We support this amendment because it will stop this and future administrations from robbing money for environmental clean ups and environmental programs in the impacted communities.  This money must not go towards plugging holes in the budget or tax cuts for the wealthy,” said Jeff Tittel.

The money from these lawsuits should go to remediating and restoring the site, local ecosystem, and local community.  In New Jersey, natural resources belong to all of us. That is called the Public Trust Doctrine. 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.

“The public was, and still is, outraged over the Exxon sell-out. It is the biggest corporate giveaway in state history and would allow Exxon to get away with a pave-and-wave at over 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. More people have sent comments to the NJDEP on the Exxon Settlement than any other issue in DEP history: more than 70,000. With the outrage over the Exxon settlement, we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Jeff Tittel.

We originally had language like this in SCR84 (the open space dedication), but land trusts and groups that receive NRD money fought to take it out.  Had it not been they would not have been able to steal the money. 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.

“When a chemical spill destroys resources or limits public use, under New Jersey law the polluters have to pay for those damages to the people of the state. However, this Administration has been using the monies to plug budget holes. Instead of protecting the environment, the Administration wants to protect corporate polluters. When you sell out the public and let the polluters off the hook, it sends a message that you can get away with anything. We must advocate for the public trust doctrine since the Administration no longer does. We needed this 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.