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Judge Weighs Whether Environmentalists Can Join Exxon Case

The judge heard arguments from a coalition of seven environmental groups.

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The decision whether to let environmental groups and a Democratic state senator intervene in New Jersey's long-running environmental cleanup lawsuit against ExxonMobil now rests with a judge.

The latest in the 11-year-old case between the Department of Environmental Protection and the petroleum company came Friday when Judge Michael Hogan heard roughly two hours of arguments from a coalition of seven environmental groups and state Sen. Raymond Lesniak on why they should be granted status as parties to the suit. That status could grant them standing to appeal if the judge approves the settlement.

Hogan said he would issue a ruling on their motion Monday or Tuesday.

The groups and Lesniak oppose the proposed $225 million settlement on the grounds that it's just a fraction of the $8.9 billion the state had earlier argued ExxonMobil owed. The case stretches back to 2004 when the state brought a suit alleging that over roughly a century ExxonMobil polluted two northern New Jersey sites in Bayonne and Linden.

The groups also take issue with part of the proposal that clears the company of responsibility at 16 petroleum sites across the state as well as 1,700 gas stations. The inclusion of those sites became public only in April.

"We want to be fully heard," said Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Margaret Brown after the hearing. "But we also want to reserve the right to appeal on the merits of the case."

State attorney Allan Kanner argued that the groups and Lesniak should instead submit advisory briefs to the court. He said the 60-day public comment period that preceded Friday's hearing offered ample time for them to air their views. Lesniak said such briefs would not enable him to appeal a ruling.

Kanner also argued that the groups' proposed intervention could complicate the case and create mini trials within the larger trial.

"You cannot come into a case that's 11 years old and be coy about what you want to do," Kanner said.

Brown said spending more time on the case would be worth it.

"It's already been a (roughly) 10-year case, so let's get it right," she said. "Delaying seems understandable to get the right answer here."

ExxonMobil attorney Theodore Wells, arguing against the groups and Lesniak, argued if the Legislature intended for groups to intervene, it would have written it in the legislation.

Hogan questioned both sides but cautioned against inferring how he might rule based on his questions.

The proposed $225 million settlement was announced shortly before Hogan was set to rule how much ExxonMobil would have to pay. That deal touched off a wave of political opposition from the Democratic-led Legislature, which passed measures condemning the proposal.

Gov. Chris Christie has argued the settlement is a good deal for the state and represents one of the largest in history.

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