Federal Court Finds Baytown's Funky Smell Isn't Exxon's Fault

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Environmentalists took a swing at oil giant ExxonMobil's Baytown complex way back in February. On Wednesday they found out it was a miss when a federal district court ruled that ExxonMobil's numerous violations of the Clean Air Act couldn't be conclusively linked to the health problems of people living around the company's Baytown refinery.

Specifically, U.S. District Judge David Hittner accepted Exxon's claims that about 10 million pounds of air pollution (comprised, of course, of carcinogens, other toxic pollutants, and respiratory irritants) released in violation of clean air laws could not be conclusively linked to any unpleasant effects in the surrounding communities, according to a statement from Environment Texas and the Sierra Club.

Hittner also accepted Exxon's argument it should not be held responsible for failing to prevent the more than 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.

Exxon's 3,400-acre complex in Baytown, Texas, the largest refinery in Southeast Texas, is located about 25 miles east of downtown Houston and a whole bunch of people live near Exxon and other refinery-type setups. Environment Texas and the Sierra Club filed the lawsuit on behalf of members who live near the site, according to the Southeast Texas Law Review.

It's no shock that the folks with the Sierra Club and Environment Texas, the plaintiffs in the case, were decidedly displeased with this development. They had submitted thousands of pages of Exxon's own reports on violations and their attorneys put Exxon witnesses through hours of cross-examination to prove the company had violated its state-issued federally mandated operating permits, according to a statement from the groups.

"Unfortunately, today's decision continues a Texas tradition of turning a blind eye - or even worse, offering a helping hand - to the state's worst polluters," Neil Carman, a former air inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and now the Clean Air Program Director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, stated. "This has created a very dangerous precedent and puts more people at risk."

Either way, Exxon folks must be pleased to not be facing the maximum penalty under federal law, a fine of $642 million. Heck, the folks over at the Irving-based company are in the clear on this one and won't be paying any such fines for the time being. Meanwhile, the environmental groups are getting up off the mat, metaphorically speaking, and looking to see if they can appeal the decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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