TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The $225 million settlement between ExxonMobil and New Jersey reached this week confirms the oil giant must clean up more than 1,500 contaminated properties from gas stations to refineries — but exactly how much they'll spend or how long it'll take remains murky.
Tuesday's settlement between New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection and ExxonMobil is a payment for the public's loss of the use of land but the oil company is also required to clean up the sites, which include oil refineries in Bayonne and Linden, 16 other facilities and roughly 1,700 retail gas stations across New Jersey.
The cleanup, which can largely be overseen by private professionals instead of the state DEP under a 2009 law, could take years, perhaps even decades.
Environmental groups say it is outrageous that neither the state nor Exxon can say how much the cleanup will cost or how long it will take.
Dave Pringle, the New Jersey campaign director for Clean Water Action, said state has effectively abandoned its duty to inspect and clean up contaminated sites with the establishment of the Licensed Site Remediation Program, aimed at clearing a backlog by allowing state-licensed private professions to manage projects.
The site remediation program has the "fox watching the henhouse," Pringle said.
"It's fundamentally corrupt and broken," he said. The polluters are driving the process."
A phase-in period for the new law ended in 2012, and the cleanups except for in Linden — which is overseen under federal supervision — will take place under the new program, according to the DEP.
Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler said it will likely take years.
"Our goal is to remediate the sites in compliance with New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection regulations and direction as safely as possible," he said.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Bob Considine said the extent of contamination and the geology of each site will be among the issues that will be at play during the cleanup.
"We can't estimate how long it will take to conduct an investigation and remediation at any given site," he said. "Each one is unique, with the time needed to complete and investigation or remediation contingent on many factors."
The Linden and Bayonne cleanups, along with remediation of a site in Paulsboro in southern New Jersey, will take a number of years to complete, said Emily Lamond, an attorney at Cole Schotz in Hackensack who specializes in environmental issues.
The timeframe depends on the size, age and complexity of the affected property. A simple case of limited contaminated soil that did not affect groundwater could be closed in months, she said. But bigger sites, like some of those named in the settlement, could take decades.
The total cost of cleanup is also unclear. ExxonMobil has spent nearly $260 million going back to 1991 to clean up the Bayonne and Linden sites and could spend "in the hundreds-of-millions range," Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan wrote in his judgment.
New Jersey sued ExxonMobil for natural resources damages in 2004. The state sought $8.9 billion in the case and Hogan was about to rule when the state and ExxonMobil announced the $225 million deal earlier this year.
Gov. Chris Christie hailed the deal as the nation's second-largest of its kind against a corporate polluter. But environmental groups and Democrats, a majority in the state Legislature, criticized the settlement and said it is just a fraction of the billions of dollars New Jersey should have recovered.
The settlement's approval came as Christie seeks the Republican nomination for president, giving his administration a legal victory in a case that has spanned Democratic and Republican governors.
Under law, about $50 million of the settlement will go toward site remediation. Roughly $50 million will go toward the state's private legal costs. The rest is slated to go into the general fund.
Environmental groups have challenged the settlement, calling it far too small. Lamond said their best hope is an appeal of Hogan's denial of their motion to intervene.
Under the settlement, ExxonMobil will put the $225 million in escrow within 45 days. But New Jersey will not have access to the money until the time to appeal expires or any appeals from entry of the consent order are resolved.