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Christie's Exxon deal spurs questions

New Jersey asked Exxon for $8.9 billion after a massive oil contamination. So why did Christie settle for $250 million?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.
The New York Times had a report out of New Jersey last week that probably deserved more attention than it received. Today, the paper moved the ball forward with an interesting development that seems to make matters worse.
Before we get to that, let's recap what we know.

A long-fought legal battle to recover $8.9 billion in damages from Exxon Mobil Corporation for the contamination and loss of use of more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, marshes, meadows and waters in northern New Jersey has been quietly settled by the state for around $250 million.

Keep in mind, Exxon's culpability was effectively already decided -- the talks among the lawyers was not whether the oil giant was responsible for severely damaging New Jersey wetlands, but rather, how much Exxon would pay in damages.
As the Times' report explained, the costs were enormous, because the state had a high burden "restoring and replacing the resources damaged by decades of oil refining and other petrochemical operations, as well as of the public's loss of use of the land."
Indeed, this was no small contamination -- we're talking about 7 million gallons of oil, ranging in thickness from 7 feet to 17 feet. It's no wonder New Jersey sought $8.9 billion in damages when its Democratic governor first filed suit in 2004. By all estimates, it would cost billions just to repair some of the obvious environmental damage.
And yet, there was the Christie administration last week, settling the case for roughly $250 million. As Rachel asked on Friday's show, "Did Exxon just get the deal of the century from the state of New Jersey?"
Today, the story took another curious turn.

A debate over New Jersey's proposed $250 million settlement of what had been an $8.9 billion pollution lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corporation has highlighted an obscure provision of a state law that would appear to allow Gov. Chris Christie to apply most if not all of the settlement toward balancing the state budget. The current state appropriations law, as proposed by Mr. Christie last year, says that any funds beyond the first $50 million collected in damages or other environmental recoveries shall go to the state's general fund. When state lawmakers tried to amend the proposal to steer more money back toward environmental restoration, Mr. Christie vetoed the effort.

I can appreciate why, when it comes to the Christie administration, the assorted controversies can be tough to keep track of, but this story is raising questions that deserve answers.
A judge was poised to rule on damages, and New Jersey was seeking $8.9 billion -- $2.6 billion to help restore the damaged areas and $6.3 billion in compensatory damages. The fact that Exxon was responsible was not even at issue anymore.
And then the Christie administration decides it'll settle for $250 million, most of which the governor can now apply to his state budget shortfall -- rather than, say, environmental recovery.
It's a story that shouldn't fade away without some important questions being asked.
For more on this, here's the segment from Friday's show: