October 13, 2008
Exxon Found Liable for Polluting New Jersey Wetlands
EXXON MOBIL CORP., the world's biggest oil company, is liable for polluting New Jersey waterways, wetlands and marshes at two former refinery sites with oil as deep as 17 feet, a judge ruled.Exxon caused a public nuisance when it contaminated the sites in Bayonne and Linden, Superior Court Judge Ross Anzaldi said in an order issued Aug. 29 in Elizabeth. The damages amount will be determined at trial.
The lawsuit, filed in 2004 by the state's Department of Environmental Protection, sought damages for the destruction of natural resources. Exxon began cleaning the sites in 1991 as part of an out-of-court settlement, according to the ruling.
"We remain committed to working with [the] DEP to have those who damage our environment held legally responsible, and to obtain compensation for natural resources lost to contamination," New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said last week in a statement.
Exxon, based in Irving, Texas, argued New Jersey couldn't sue because the disputed sites aren't subject to public trust. It also argued the state waived its rights to the natural resources when it conveyed grants to Exxon and its predecessors. Anzaldi rejected those claims.
Exxon has spent millions of dollars cleaning the sites under the earlier agreements, according to the oil company's lawyer in the case, Ted Wells, of the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York.
"Exxon Mobil takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously, and has met its obligations under these agreements and will continue to do so," Wells said last week. The case isn't about compliance, he said.
No 'DOLLAR FIGURE'
"We've not set a dollar figure" on damages, Deputy Attorney General Richard Engel said last week. After years of cleanup operations by Exxon, there is still "a long way to go," and "restoring land is the priority," he said.
The two sites are currently in use. If damages are awarded, New Jersey may use the funds to buy and restore contaminated land near the two sites, according to Engel. The state may also buy land that's currently pristine and preserve it, he said.
Exxon doesn't dispute that decades of spills and leaks resulted in natural areas being contaminated by oil and toxic chemicals, including pesticides and arsenic, according to the ruling.
The Platty Kill Canal in Bayonne is so toxic that Exxon recommended permanently filling the waterway with an impermeable barrier, according to the ruling. Another waterway, Morses Creek, has been reduced to a "gelatinous, oily emulsion overlaying gray silt," it said.
7 MILLION GALLONS
Soil and groundwater under the Bayonne site was contaminated with about 7 million gallons of oil, between 7 and 17 feet deep before cleanup operations began 17 years ago, according to the ruling. Refinery operations at the 288-acre site lasted from 1879 through 1972, it said.
The 1,300-acre Linden site, known as Bayway, was used by Exxon until 1972 and is currently owned and operated by ConocoPhillips, the second-largest U.S. refiner. For decades, the two cites were connected by pipelines and operated as a single refinery known as the Jersey Works, court papers say.
The court's decision rej ected New Jersey's claim that it was entitled to collect damages under a public nuisance theory, according to Wells. Two other state claims were also rejected, he said.
The state may collect damages under Spill Act legislation that relates to contaminated sites, the judge ruled.
Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers didn't return a call for comment by press time.
"We remain committed to working with [the] DEP to have those who damage our environment held legally responsible, and to obtain compensation for natural resources lost to contamination."
New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram
Copyright Journal Publications Inc. Sep 15, 2008
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