Exxon Mobil's top lawyer said Wednesday that a heavily criticized $225 million pollution settlement with New Jersey was reasonable and that the nearly $9 billion initially sought by the state shouldn't be used as a barometer because it was calculated using faulty methodology.
The settlement announced in March has drawn criticism from environmentalists and lawmakers in both parties who have said the state should have waited for a judge's ruling instead of settling for what they have a characterized as pennies on the dollar.
"The critics who complain about settling an $8.9 billion case of $225 million are ignoring the reality of how that $8.9 billion was calculated," Jack Balagia, ExxonMobil's general counsel, told The Associated Press.
Balagia called the $8.9 billion "not a real number" because it vastly overstated the amount of damage and didn't demonstrate a direct link between the pollution at refinery sites in Linden and Bayonne and ground contamination.
"They assume if there's a drop of contamination on the soil it results in 100 percent of the injury," he said. "They don't relate the circumstance on the ground to what the real injury was."
The yearslong battle wound up in front of a judge last year and he was due to rule on the amount Exxon Mobil was liable to pay when the settlement was reached.
If approved by the judge after a 60-day public comment period and a review by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the settlement would be the second-largest natural resource settlement against a corporate defendant in the country's history and the largest in state history, the DEP said in a statement this month. Only the Exxon-Valdez payout was larger.
Balagia said Exxon Mobil felt it presented "a great case" at trial but that the settlement avoided lengthy and costly appeals and provided finality.
"The state gets a record settlement and we get to move forward," he said.
Democratic state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, an outspoken critic of the settlement, noted Wednesday that the settlement allows Exxon Mobil to resolve pollution claims at 16 service station sites, as well as hundreds of others where little or no damage was detected. Lesniak has requested public records for the results of testing done at the stations.
Lesniak, a practicing lawyer, said he would have preferred to see the litigation play out.
"They went through a series of motions, then they went through an eight-month trial," he said. "The only thing left would have been an appeal of the judge's decision, which would have taken a year or two. I'd be more than willing to wait. It would have been well worth it."