Trial began earlier this month 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 accuses ExxonMobil under the Clean Air Act (CAA) of releasing 10 million pounds of pollutants in over 4000 upset 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 drifts for miles downwind through the Houston Ship Channel and travels into Houston and surrounding communities, where thousands of people and children may breathe the air pollution,” stated Dr. Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter. “It is unacceptable that ExxonMobil has failed to reduce the number of upset emissions events when the technology exists for the company cleanup 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.
ExxonMobil twice attempted to dismiss the citizen’s suit, arguing that previous Air Enforcement orders issued by the TCEQ had sufficiently prompted the company to handle the upset emission events and that no further legal action was required. The facts on the ground, however, did not substantiate the company’s claim. The upset emissions events continued unabated and multiple judges ruled that the case must continue to trial.
The CAA citizen’s suit covers all three of ExxonMobil’s Baytown plants including its refinery, olefins plant, and chemical plant, covering 3,400 acres – the largest of its kind in the nation. According to the TCEQ, the complex is the number one industrial air polluter in Houston and Harris County emitting large volumes of air toxics and pollutants such as benzene, sulfur-dioxide, nitrogen-oxide (Nox) and particulate matter annually.
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 Compounds (VOCs) emissions lead to the formation of ground-level ozone – a pollutant that in large quantities 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 major 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 court showing that each cut illegal air pollution from major upset events by about 95%.