ExxonMobil has lost in district court, but $20 million in fines may not be as big a deal to the company as one would think.
ExxonMobil has lost in district court, but $20 million in fines may not be as big a deal to the company as one would think.
Image by Monica Fuentes based on a photo by Bert Marshall

Exxon Ordered to Pay $20 Million for Air Pollution Violations at Baytown Complex

A federal judge has fined ExxonMobil nearly $20 million for releasing 10 million pounds of pollutants into the air from its Baytown refinery and chemical complex over the past eight years.

That's right, an oil company, one of the largest in the world, has actually been held accountable for polluting in Texas, of all places, the result of a lawsuit filed by two environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and Environment Texas, way back in 2010.

“This ruling shows how crucial the citizen enforcement provision of the Clean Air Act really is for Texas residents. It means that private citizens victimized by the world’s biggest polluters can get justice in the American court system, even when government regulators look the other way,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, stated.

Keep in mind that while that fine sounds like a lot — and is indeed an impressive amount — it's still most likely merely a higher-than-usual cost of doing business to the Arlington-based company. Exxon pulled in more than $7 billion in 2016, and that was an off year for the company. That hasn't stopped environmentalists from celebrating the decision as a win, however.

But still, it's something.

The whole endeavor started about seven years ago when the Sierra Club and Environment Texas brought a lawsuit against ExxonMobil's Baytown refinery, alleging there were emissions pumping out of the facility in violation of the federal Clean Air Act from 2005 to 2010.

At the time, the environmental groups said they'd decided to file the lawsuits because regulatory authorities weren't doing anything to address the problem. When the case went to trial in 2014, U.S. District Judge David Hittner ruled that despite ExxonMobil's numerous Clean Air Act violations at the Baytown facilities over the years, the air violations couldn't be conclusively linked to the health issues of people living around the Baytown facility.

Hittner's decision drew our attention at the time because the logic behind it was so, well, illogical. Hittner accepted Exxon's argument that the millions of pounds of air pollution released from the Baytown plant (composed, of course, of carcinogens, other toxic pollutants and respiratory irritants) in violation of clean air laws could not be conclusively linked to any unpleasant effects in the surrounding communities.

Hittner then doubled down, buying Exxon's argument that the company should not be held responsible for 4,000 separate equipment malfunctions and other events — an average of more than one a day for eight years — that each resulted in the release of illegal pollutants from the Baytown Complex from October 2005 through 2010.

However, while Hittner bought these claims, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals did not, vacating Hittner's decision last year, kicking the case back to federal district court and ordering that penalties be reassessed in light of the Fifth Circuit ruling.

And thus, the second time around Hittner was more strict with Exxon, finding in an opinion issued Wednesday that Exxon committed 16,386 days of violation of the federal Clean Air Act at its Baytown refinery and chemical plant. As a result, the court has ordered Exxon to pay $19.95 million, which is believed to be the largest civil penalty ever imposed in an environmental “citizen suit,” a citizen-initiated enforcement mechanism Congress included in the Clean Air Act and other federal environmental laws, according to Environment Texas.

In a 101-page decision, Hittner found that Exxon profited – to the tune of more than $14 million – by delaying implementation of necessary pollution control measures, and that the vast number of violations Exxon committed and the 10 million pounds of illegal pollution it released all weighed in favor of imposing a heavy penalty.

“Compliance with air pollution laws and operating permits is mandatory, not optional, and we will not stand idly by when polluters put our health and safety at risk," Neil Carman, director of the Clean Air Program for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

However, Exxon officials insist they didn't do anything wrong here and are currently weighing out legal options. Understandably, they want to avoid paying the fine, as Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler relayed in an emailed statement. "We disagree with the court's decision and the award of any penalty," Sitpler stated. "As the court expressed in its decision, ExxonMobil's full compliance history and good faith efforts to comply weigh against assessing any penalty. We will consider legal options including appeal of the court's decision."

We've asked Exxon representatives what it will mean for Exxon and for the roughly 7,000 people employed at the Baytown site (after all, $20 million isn't necessarily a make-or-break amount for Exxon) if the company does end up having to pay the fine, but haven't heard back on that yet. We'll update as soon as we do.

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