TRENTON – A common-sense ballot measure requiring pollution damage settlements to remain in the intended communities and not grabbed to plug holes in the state budget has been posted for floor votes in the Legislature on Monday, thanks to the leadership of legislative champions Sen. Bob Smith and Assemblymen John McKeon and Tim Eustace, the diligence of advocates from the NJ League of Conservation Voters, NY/NJ Baykeeper, American Littoral Society and NJ Audubon and the voices of more than 2,400 taxpayers and voters.
The resolution (SCR39/ACR127) asks voters to safeguard monies intended to enable communities to recover from industrial pollution, sometimes sustained over several decades, rather than allow diversions for unrelated spending, as is now the case. If approved by both houses of the Legislature on Monday and again next year, the question will go to voters next November, a gubernatorial election year in New Jersey.
“These funds are the one shot local families and businesses have to restore their community from damages made to natural resources by polluters,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of NJ League of Conservation Voters, the leading political voice for the environment. “The Trenton money grab needs to stop, that’s why this public question is so important, it puts environmental settlements into a lockbox ensuring communities harmed by polluters are made whole.”
Sen. Bob Smith, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, has worked diligently on the wording of the ballot question to be put before voters in November of 2017 building consensus among the state’s diverse environmental community.
“The constitutional dedication of Natural Resource Damages is essential to ensure that the damaged property is cleaned up and restored, unlike the Exxon Mobil Corp. settlement wherein the governor plans to use the NRD money for non-environmental purposes,” said Smith.
Like Smith, many see the court-challenged Exxon Mobil settlement as falling far short of what the polluted communities of Bayonne, Linden and others deserve as compensation for natural resource damage to more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, marshes and waters at refinery sites. The $225 million NRD settlement accepted by the Christie Administration would shrink further if budget language was allowed to stand capping the restoration at $50 million and rerouting the rest to the general fund.
“Right now, the state is able to use this money for any purpose, and the Christie Administration has taken full advantage of this,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, vice chair of the Assembly Environmental Committee. “These monies were not meant to plug holes in the budget. These monies were the result of environmental contamination settlements and should only be used to repair the damage caused by the contamination and for measures that can help protect our environment."
McKeon notes that diverting these funds “sends the wrong message to residents,” and his words are borne out by the more than 2,400 residents who in just four days signed a petition urging lawmakers to put a question on the ballot protecting communities from these unscrupulous money grabs.
"Natural resource damage settlements are investments back into communities impacted by years of pollution,” said Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper. “These projects include preservation of open space for neighborhood parks or habitat restoration. One example is the expansion of Newark's waterfront park along the lower Passaic River, a showcase of urban park development."
Kelly Mooij, vice president of government relations for NJ Audubon, noted the tremendous good these monies can do when applied properly to habitat restoration.
“We believe that funds from this program must be used to restore natural resources and provide recreational opportunities where damage has been done,” says Mooij. “Money should flow to the same community where pollution took place, or through another nexus, such as a connected watershed, in lands that protect the local water source or by identifying another natural resource that is used by the community.”
Tim Dillingham, executive director of American Littoral Society, notes the economic benefits – for jobs and tourism – of remediating communities that have sustained industrial pollution.
"The damaged resources, often tidal marshes and beaches, are the foundation of important economies like recreational and commercial fishing. Fixing the damage supports these struggling industries and the folks who rely on them for jobs," said Dillingham.