(Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp’s $225 million settlement with the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of a longstanding environmental pollution case won approval on Tuesday from a state judge, over the objections of critics who called the accord a sellout.
Judge Michael Hogan of the State Superior Court called the accord a “reasonable compromise given the substantial litigation risks” for the state at trial and on appeal, although the payout was not even 3 percent of the $8.9 billion in damages sought.
New Jersey wanted to hold Exxon responsible for decades of natural resources contamination stemming from its refinery operations in Bayonne and Linden, as well as other facilities, including more than 1,700 gas stations.
It said this included damage that turned more than 1,500 acres of wetlands and marshes into toxic wastelands.
The state has called Exxon’s payout the second-largest for natural resources damages from a single company in U.S. history.
But environmental critics and Democratic legislators have faulted Christie, a Republican running for U.S. president, for entering a lowball settlement rather than continuing to fight in court, where Hogan oversaw a trial that ran 66 days last year.
Margaret Brown, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the accord a “slap on the wrist” for Exxon, which made $32.5 billion of profit in 2014, that will do little to undo the damage.
“Exxon could have been on the hook for very significant damages, but won a sweeping release,” she said in an interview. “It’s a huge loss for the people of New Jersey and the environment.”
In his 81-page decision, Hogan called the settlement fair, reasonable and in the public interest, saying it ensured the prompt cleanup of hazardous substances without the need to spend more taxpayer money on litigation.
The judge also noted the surrounding controversy.
“Nearly any consent decree can be viewed simultaneously as a crackdown or a sellout,” he wrote. “This quote rings especially true for the settlement that this court has been tasked with reviewing.”
Alan Jeffers, a spokesman for Irving, Texas-based Exxon, called the accord a “fair and reasonable conclusion” that offers “certainty and finality.”
Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman said the state can still pursue some claims against Exxon, including over damages to the Arthur Kill, Newark Bay and other surface waters.
The NRDC’s Brown said environmental groups opposed to the accord will review their legal options.