LINDEN, N.J. - Standing at the edge of a park that separates a blue-collar neighborhood of modest single-family homes from a highway and a former Exxon Mobil refinery site, Arlene Dudas pointed to a spot where kids used to skate on a frozen pond each winter. It's a spot she says she can't say for certain was left untouched by contamination from the refineries.
"You know what's going into the air, but you don't know what's going into the ground," the longtime Linden resident said Friday. "There's definitely underground water here. Who's to say the contamination stopped within Exxon's boundaries? It gets into the groundwater and it flows with the streams. That's what bothers me — what's under this ground right here?"
Dudas and several other residents stood alongside state Sen. Raymond Lesniak and other lawmakers who want to see the $225 million settlement between the state and Exxon Mobil voided. They feel the sate let the company off the hook too easily for contamination in Linden and Bayonne over a span of decades.
New Jersey had initially sued for $8.9 billion in damages, and a judge heard evidence last year and was in the process of reaching a damage amount when the two sides recently announced the settlement.
Lesniak has put in public records requests with the state to try and shed more light on what factors influenced the settlement. He has vowed to fight the settlement in court. The settlement will be published in the New Jersey Register next month and then be subject to a public comment period before it goes back to state Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan for approval.
Lesniak said Friday that once Hogan and the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the settlement, a legal challenge could be made to a state appeals court. The appeals court could then choose to uphold the settlement or send it back to Hogan for reconsideration.
Democratic lawmakers have criticized Republican Gov. Chris Christie and pointed out that Exxon made $500,000 in donations to the Republican Governors Association during 2014, when Christie chaired the organization. Responding to the criticism this week, Christie called the settlement "really good" and said it covers restoring the polluted areas and is separate from Exxon's obligation to clean up the sites.
An Exxon spokesman said this week the company has spent about $260 million in cleanup costs since 1991.
In announcing the settlement last week, the state attorney general's office said it was "the single largest environmental settlement with a corporate defendant in New Jersey history."
Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a lifelong Linden resident, pressed Christie's administration for answers.
"We deserve to know why it's being settled so cheaply when liability has already been established," he said. "I think we need to know the answer to that question. Why is this being done? Are there some considerations?
We're not going to go away," he added. "This matter should not go away and we should find out those answers."