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Passaic River Settlement Draws Criticism: Only $50M of $140M to go Towards River Cleanup

The battle continued last week over how the State of New Jersey will be spending $190 million dollars in funds obtained as part of Occidental Chemical Corp.’s settlement for contamination of the Passaic River.  In comments submitted to the Christie Administration last Wednesday, the last day of the available public comment period, a number of environmental groups including NY/NJ Baykeeper, the Passaic River Coalition, Hackensack Riverkeeper, and Environment New Jersey urged the Governor to direct the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to use the money for cleanup work on the River rather than diverting $140 million into the State’s general fund.  The Administration had previously announced that it intended to allocate only $50 million of the settlement to the restoration efforts in the Passaic.  In response to criticism regarding the small portion going to cleanup efforts, the Administration pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would already be spending $1.7 billion to remediate a substantial portion of the lower portion of the River. The debate has even attracted the involvement of U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell, Jr., who himself wrote a letter to the Administration criticizing the DEP’s planned allocation.

Objectors to the current plan argue it is inadequate to address the true extent of the natural resource damages incurred.  Yet the State has contended that the $140 million going to the general fund is actually necessary to make the State whole for “Past Cleanup and Removal Costs” and “Economic damages reserved against [Occidental],” which it has already incurred during the litigation.  Ultimately, the controversy may come down to whether the court deems the allocation to be consistent with the terms of the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act; a Superior Court judge must approve the settlement. That Spill Act provides that “it should be a function of [DEP] to facilitate and coordinate activities and functions designed to clean up contaminated sites in this State.”  However, the Act does not specifically provide for how settlement funds must be spent.

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