New Jersey’s new push to sue people and companies responsible for pollution has environmental groups applauding and business interests raising questions and concerns.
After two terms of Republican Chris Christie, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration announced last week that it would resume pursuing natural resources damages in cases that resulted in contamination in New Jersey. The state has a long history of industrialization as well as contamination; it has more Superfund sites – land contaminated by hazardous waste and marked for cleanup due to its health risks – than any other state.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a half-dozen new lawsuits and said Christie’s administration didn’t pursue any such new suits over eight years. Christie did, however, reach the biggest such settlement in state history in a case he inherited, agreeing to accept $225 million from ExxonMobil over polluted sites in Bayonne and Linden, as well as retail gas stations across the state.
The so-called natural resource damages cases are distinct from the responsibility that property owners carry to remediate contaminated sites. The cash the state recovers in the damages cases is aimed at compensating the public for the loss of the use of land because of pollution. But even if no such money is recovered, responsible parties are still required by law to pay for cleanup.
Environmental activists add that the money must also be used to restore polluted sites so the public can use them again.
It’s an important distinction, business groups say, because otherwise it could seem as if corporations had not been paying for cleanups.
“I’m a little bit worried when the public reads this they sort of think this is going against companies that are actively out there (violating the law),” said Dennis Hart, the executive director of the state’s Chemistry Council, which reviews regulations for their effect on manufacturing in the state. “I worry about the message the public hears.”
Michele Siekerka, who heads the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, stressed that companies want to be “environmental stewards” and that enforcement like the kind Grewal and Murphy proposed should be used for “egregious bad actors.”
But she raised concerns that too much government red tape could hurt businesses.
“Overzealous enforcement or looking for ‘gotchas’ in a morass of sometimes complex regulations can cause unnecessary burdens on well-intended companies,” she said.
That’s just the issue, say environmental organizations: Under the previous administration, there wasn’t enough enforcement of the state’s strict pollution laws.
“This is the end of the era of inaction,” said Doug O’Malley, the state director of Environment New Jersey.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, said that the message to in the previous administration was “aggressively pro-business,” while Murphy is embracing a discretionary tool that the state’s laws make available to law enforcement – the ability to pursue damages.
Under Christie, New Jersey’s contaminated sites in fact underwent cleanups, and while Christie didn’t pursue new natural resources damages cases, the administration settled deals for hundreds of millions of dollars.
As for what’s next, Democratic Sen. Bob Smith, who chairs the Environment and Energy Committee, has tasked four people – two environmentalists and two business representatives – to look into natural resources damages.
The report is expected sometime in the fall and could be followed by additional legislation.
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