HOUSTON – In yet another loss for ExxonMobil Corporation in a historic and long-running environmental enforcement case, U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner has imposed a $14.25 million penalty to punish the company for violating the federal Clean Air Act at its Baytown, Texas, refinery and chemical plant complex over 3,651 days over a period of eight years.
“Exxon has been fighting this case for 11 years now, refusing to take any responsibility for spewing millions of pounds of illegal pollution into Texas communities,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “We call on Exxon to finally stop its scorched-earth litigation tactics, pay its penalty and drop these endless appeals.”
The new ruling came following a “remand” of the case back to the district court from the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Last July, a three-judge panel had rejected most of the arguments Exxon had made in its appeal of the original $19.95 million penalty in this case. But the appellate court nonetheless sent the case back to Judge Hittner to make additional findings as to how many of the thousands of proven Clean Air Act violations were of a type or magnitude that was “capable of causing” the kinds of harms suffered by Sierra Club and Environment Texas members who live near the sprawling facility.
In his new opinion, Judge Hittner found that the environmental groups had proven at trial that thousands of instances of illegal flaring and unauthorized releases of pollutants causing smoke, chemical odors, ground-level ozone, and respiratory problems were “fairly traceable” to the injuries suffered by their members.
“We are extremely pleased that Judge Hittner has, once again, assessed a civil penalty against Exxon that is larger than any penalty ever imposed in a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement suit,” said National Environmental Law Center senior attorney Josh Kratka, part of the legal team representing Environment Texas and Sierra Club.
In support of his penalty assessment, Judge Hittner pointed to the fact that Exxon had committed more than one violation every single day for a period of eight years.
Furthermore, Judge Hittner flatly rejected Exxon’s “act of God” defense, finding that Hurricane Ike in 2008 was not responsible for the vast amounts of pollution released during Exxon’s “startup” and “shutdown” of the facility.
This case follows successful cases the same groups brought against Shell Oil Company for violations at its Deer Park refinery, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company for violations at its Cedar Bayou chemical plant, and Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc. for violations at the Pasadena refinery.
Exxon’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.
“Exxon’s Baytown refinery-chemical complex is the largest polluter on the Houston Ship Channel impacting the air quality of hundreds of thousands of citizens,” stated Neil Carman, clean air program director, Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “Exxon Baytown still needs to clean up its act and do more to create cleaner air in the Houston area,” he added.
The groups are represented by the National Environmental Law Center; attorney David Nicholas of Newton, Massachusetts; and Houston attorneys Philip Hilder and Will Graham.