ExxonMobil Still on Hook for $20 Million Air Pollution Fine at Baytown Refinery

ExxonMobil Still on Hook for $20 Million Air Pollution Fine at Baytown Refinery
mage by Monica Fuentes based on a photo by Bert Marshall
It's a swing and a miss for ExxonMobil.

Back in April, a federal judge ordered the Arlington-based energy behemoth to pay a $20 million fine for releasing more than 10 million pounds of pollutants into the air from its Baytown refinery and chemical complex over the past eight years.

Yes, one of the largest oil companies in the world is actually being held accountable for polluting the air right here in Harris County, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and Environment Texas back in 2010. The ruling, from Judge David Hittner, found that Exxon would have to pay $19.95 million for having blasted through the air pollution limitations at the massive Baytown complex from 2005 to 2013.

Hittner's decision came after the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country, vacated his earlier ruling that had found that only a small portion of Exxon's emissions were severe enough to trigger legal action. (The 2014 ruling drew our attention at the time because Hittner's conclusion that despite 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, made so little sense.)

So the decision was kicked back to Hittner, who then — possibly after realizing how rarely a judge finds himself or herself more conservative than the Fifth Circuit — decided to fine the company. He issued a 101-page decision finding that Exxon had saved more than $14 million by delaying repairs that would have prevented more than 4,000 separate emissions composed of carcinogens, other toxic pollutants and respiratory irritants, adding up to 16,386 days the Baytown refinery was in violation of the Clean Air Act.

Exxon didn't simply pony up and pay the money though.

Instead, despite the fact that the fine was pocket change to Exxon — even amid the ongoing oil glut, Exxon pulled in more than $7 billion in 2016 alone — in May the company's lawyers asked Hittner to look at the details of how he had calculated the fine, including the way the judge concluded how much the company saved by delaying repairs. Company representatives also claimed that the emissions were unavoidable, and thus Exxon should not be fined since state law allows companies to dodge fines for air pollution emissions if a company can prove it did everything possible to avoid the emissions during any unplanned events or malfunctions.

In other words, Exxon officials did their level best to wriggle out of paying that fine, but ultimately Hittner wasn't having it. "Reconsideration of a judgment after its entry is an extraordinary remedy that should be used sparingly," Hittner wrote in the nine-page ruling issued Monday.

Exxon isn't done yet. The company plans to appeal the decision and is already busily spinning the latest decision upholding the fine in full as a victory of sorts. "ExxonMobil's full compliance history and good faith efforts to comply weigh against assessing any penalty," the company said in a written statement. "The court has recognized that none of the events in question actually or potentially harmed public health or the environment."
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray