Sierra Club sues Exxon over Baytown refinery pollution

Erwin Seba and Jeff Roberts

Reuters Legal

December 14, 2010

The Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed a federal lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp for five years of excess pollution at the nation's largest refinery, the Sierra Club said on Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges Exxon's refinery and chemical plant in Baytown, Texas, committed over 2,500 violations of the Clean Air Act between 2005 and 2010 and released over 8 million lbs of pollutants into the atmosphere, said Neil Carman, clean air director of the Sierra Club's Texas chapter.

If successful, the lawsuit could cost Exxon $81.25 million in fines, Carman said.

"We're seeking for Exxon to clean up the Exxon Baytown refinery," Carman said on Tuesday morning. "They need to comply with the law."

An Exxon spokesman said the company would oppose the Sierra Club lawsuit.

"Over the last five years, the Baytown refinery and chemical plant, one of the nation's largest and most complex petrochemical facilities, has produced total annual emissions that are nearly 40 percent below the federal permit limits set by (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)," said Exxon spokesman Kevin Allexon in a statement.

The Sierra Club and Environment Texas based their number of violations on reports of excess pollution filed by the Baytown refinery and chemical plant with state and federal pollution regulators, as required by law.

Among the pollutants released by the Baytown refining and chemical plant complex are benzene, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, Carman said.

Allexon said Exxon has invested nearly $1.3 million to reduce pollution coming from the Baytown complex.

"Since 2001, there has been an 89 percent reduction in upset/maintenance emissions, a 58 percent reduction in total emissions (routine and upset), and a 62 percent reduction in the number of reportable air incidents," Allexon said.

U.S. refineries operate under permits that license the facilities to release a set amount of pollution in daily, weekly and annual periods. When a refinery exceeds those limits, it must notify state and federal regulators.

This is the third lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and Environment Texas against refineries and chemical plants in the Houston area.

Previous lawsuits against Shell Oil Co and ChevronPhillips Chemical Co resulted in settlements with companies promising to spend millions of dollars for anti-pollution equipment and other clean air projects in the Houston area. Exxon's Baytown refinery has a crude oil throughput capacity of 560,540 barrels per day. Exxon is the also the nation's largest refiner.

The case is Environment Texas Citizen Lobby, Inc et al v. ExxonMobil Corporation et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 4:10-cv-04969. The docket states that Philip Hilder of Hilder & Associates is lead counsel for the plaintiffs.