Lax enforcement by state results in far-reaching citizen enforcement case
HOUSTON – Trial begins Monday in a Houston federal courtroom in a lawsuit filed by Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter and Environment Texas against ExxonMobil for massive and repeated violations of the Clean Air Act at the oil giant’s Baytown manufacturing facility, the largest in the nation.
The lawsuit, which will be presided over by U.S. District Judge David Hittner, accuses ExxonMobil under the Clean Air Act (CAA) of releasing nearly 10 million pounds of pollutants in over 4,000 so-called “emission events” since 2005 from its refinery-chemical plant complex in Baytown, TX, endangering the health and safety of thousands of Houston-area residents.
“ExxonMobil Baytown refinery-chemical plant’s upset air pollution can drift for miles downwind through its surrounding communities, the Houston Ship Channel, and even into Houston. Thousands of adults and children may be subjected to breathing this air pollution,” stated Dr. Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter. “It is unacceptable that ExxonMobil still has hundreds of upset emissions events per year, when the technology exists for the company to clean up its act.”
Environment Texas and Sierra Club initiated legal action against the company in 2010 after it became clear that actions by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s air quality regulatory authority, were not sufficient to deter the company from continuing to release upset emissions. The lawsuit is the largest CAA citizen suit ever filed in Texas for upset pollution, and one of the largest ever filed in the US.
“We made a decision not to sit on the sidelines while TCEQ lets Exxon foul our air without meaningful consequences,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “We’re blowing the whistle on Exxon’s flagrant law breaking and demanding they clean up their act.”
ExxonMobil twice attempted to dismiss the groups’ suit, arguing that previous enforcement orders issued by the TCEQ were sufficient and that no further legal action was required. Judge Hittner, however, rejected this argument and set the case for trial, ruling that a proper role for citizen Clean Air Act enforcement is to question the adequacy of government regulators.
The environmental groups’ lawsuit covers all three of ExxonMobil’s Baytown plants: its refinery, olefins plant, and chemical plant. The complex covers 3,400 acres and is the largest of its kind in the nation. According to the TCEQ, the complex is the number one industrial air polluter in Harris County, emitting large quantities of air toxics and pollutants such as benzene (a human carcinogen), sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and the chemicals that form ground-level ozone, or smog.
The ExxonMobil facility is located in the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria ozone nonattainment area, a designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for regions where excessive NOx and Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions lead to the formation of ozone – a pollutant that at high enough concentrations is particularly harmful to children, the elderly and people with respiratory disease.
This is the groups’ third federal lawsuit since 2008, targeting illegal air emissions in the Houston area caused by upset events and other violations of the Clean Air Act at Gulf Coast refineries and chemical plants. It follows earlier successful cases against Shell Oil Company for violations at its Deer Park refinery and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company for violations at its Cedar Bayou chemical plant. In November, those companies filed documents with the U.S. District Court in Houston showing that each cut illegal air pollution from major upset events by about 95%.