With elections gearing up, the Sunoco-owned Eagle Point refinery tax appeals settlement has found itself at the center of much political debate in West Deptford. That got kicked up a notch this week with accusations from New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
In a letter dated Oct. 24, Sweeney called for the state attorney general’s office and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to investigate the township on grounds that the reimbursement of $13.1 million to Sunoco was illegal, according to recently passed legislation.
Sweeney’s letter alleges the reimbursement violates a law signed by Gov. Chris Christie on July 9. Sweeney says in accordance with the law, property tax refunds should have been escrowed with the DEP.
All properties that are decommissioned or partially decommissioned and are given state orders for remediation are subject to this law. The DEP is then responsible for using the tax refund money to execute an environmental cleanup of the site. After cleanup, what is left of the money is returned to the property’s owner.
“I was shocked and dismayed to recently learn that West Deptford officials have apparently disbursed $13.1 million of tax refunds to Sunoco Inc. in what appears to be a direct violation of the law,” Sweeney wrote.
Sweeney went on to say that both Sunoco and the township committee were fully aware of the law at the time of reimbursement, and he believes the township solicitor used counsel from Sunoco’s attorney to justify this alleged illegal action.
Township Solicitor Anthony Ogozalek told the Gloucester County TimesWednesday that the law does not apply to the Sunoco settlement since the property was not “underutilized”—one of the qualifiers for the law.
“We can all agree that the property is not vacant, so the issue comes down to whether it is ‘underutilized,’" Ogozalek told the Times. “Based on DEP regulations and state statute, and using the technical opinion of Maurice Stack, whom we’ve used as an expert on this for years, we came to the conclusion that it does not apply.”
Sweeney goes on to allege that West Deptford's action was either the township’s way of securing Sunoco’s $750,000 donation toward new fire trucks or the donation from Sunoco was the bribe in order to ensure the township would disperse the money directly to the company and not to the DEP.
Patch was unable to reach West Deptford's mayor or township solicitor before presstime.
Sweeney has requested that both offices investigate the possibility of illegal dispersed funds and to hold all perpetrators of the violation accountable.
Sunoco is still in the process of cleaning up the contaminated refinery.