E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co. settled one of the largest pollution liabilities in the state, resolving tens of millions of dollars in potential fines by promising to plant 3,000 trees, pay $500,000 and help preserve 1,875 acres of land, state and company officials announced yesterday.

It is meant as payback to the public for vast plumes of polluted water under eight of DuPont’s facilities, from the massive Chambers Works chemical plant on the Delaware River to an old explosives factory in Pompton Lakes.

That includes two polluted sites in Newark and one each in Carteret, Linden, Sayreville and Greenwich.

State officials could not say exactly how many gallons of water were polluted, but they said it was the largest amount of pollution for which any company had yet paid natural resource damages—fines that go beyond cleanup costs and compensate the public for damage to environmental features.

The state began pursuing such damages during the administration of Gov. Christie Whitman. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell has broadened the effort considerably in the past couple of years.

Standing alongside DuPont executives on a 63-acre tract the company will preserve in Old Bridge, Campbell touted the agreement as a “signature reflection of the success of the program.”

It was difficult to determine how good the deal was for DuPont, and for the taxpayers. If either DuPont or state officials had calculated the approximate size of the company’s potential fines, or the approximate value of its gifts, neither would say yesterday.

However, in a 1998 memo to the Whitman administration, DuPont estimated its potential natural resource damages—as the fines are known—at $60 million for just three polluted sites.

Of the 1,875 acres it is helping to conserve, DuPont agreed to donate 73 acres outright and pay $500,000 to a conservation group to help buy 350 acres more. The company will continue to own the rest of the land but will write a restriction into the deeds forever barring development.

Campbell said the state could have been more aggressive but would have had a costly legal battle on its hands with no certain outcome. He said the settlement reflected his long-standing promise to companies that he would go easier on them if they paid their natural resource damages voluntarily.

“DuPont took us at our word,” Campbell said. “What you have here is the fruit of that discussion, that negotiation.”

Representatives from three riverkeeper organizations were on hand to praise the settlement, but some other environmentalists criticized it.

“The department had a very strong litigation hand,” said Bill Wolfe, a former aide to Campbell who now heads the state chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “This is a paltry settlement given the magnitude of the damage that the company has imposed on the taxpayers, the environment and the public health of the state. They’re one of the largest polluters in the world.”

The state Sierra Club issued a press release entitled “No Real Dollars and No Real Deal,” pointing out that much of the land to be conserved was wetlands and so could never have been developed anyway.

State officials said about half the land was wetlands. The 63-acre Old Bridge tract at which yesterday’s press conference was held was zoned for residential development. DuPont hung onto a nearby 360-acre lot that is also zoned residential.

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