HOUSTON – A federal court yesterday rejected a motion by ExxonMobil Corporation and two subsidiaries to dismiss a lawsuit filed against them by Sierra Club and Environment Texas. The lawsuit alleges thousands of violations of the Clean Air Act at the nation’s largest oil refinery and chemical plant complex, located in Baytown, Texas. According to the groups, millions of pounds of pollutants have been released in these violations.
Exxon argued, among other things, that citizens cannot sue to enforce the Clean Air Act because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already oversee the complex. The groups successfully argued, however, that the government’s utter failure to stop Exxon’s violations opens the door to direct enforcement of the law by citizen groups.
In fact, the groups noted, violations have continued even after the lawsuit was filed on December 13, 2010. For example, according to a report filed by Exxon itself, on May 2, 2011, the refinery illegally emitted over 2,000 pounds of air pollutants in what the company called a “frac tank slop oil spill.” The emissions included 66 pounds of benzene, which is a known human carcinogen.
“Congress specifically allowed for citizen enforcement suits because sometimes government agencies fall down on the job, and this case is a perfect example of that,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas.
Exxon also argued in its motion to dismiss that the groups did not sufficiently specify the injuries their members suffer from the alleged violations. The groups successfully pointed to specific examples of health impacts and other adverse effects caused by the types of pollutants illegally released by Exxon.
“Baytown residents want to breathe as little of Exxon’s chemical soup as possible, and it’s hard to believe Exxon does not understand that,” said Dr. Neil Carman, a chemist and the Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club.
This is the groups’ third federal lawsuit since 2008 targeting illegal air emissions in the Houston area caused by so-called “upset” events and other violations of Clean Air Act emission permits at Gulf Coast refineries and chemical plants. It follows earlier successful cases against Shell Oil Company for violations at its Deer Park refinery and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company for violations at its Cedar Bayou chemical plant.
ExxonMobil’s 3,400-acre complex in Baytown, Texas, is located about 25 miles east of downtown Houston. Tens of thousands of people live within three miles of the complex.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring ExxonMobil to end its Clean Air Act violations. In addition, ExxonMobil faces civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day for each violation of the Clean Air Act. U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner’s June 7 order allows the case to continue now toward trial.