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Exxon ordered to pay $20 million in air emissions suit

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Exxon Mobil has been ordered by a federal judge in Houston to pay about $20 million civil penalty for releasing 10 million pounds of pollutants into the air from its Baytown refining and chemical complex from 2005-2013.

U.S District Judge David Hittner declared in a Wednesday ruling that evidence revealed the Texas oil company’s emissions violated the Clean Air Act 16,386 times.

Two environmental groups, Sierra Club and Environmental Texas Citizen Lobby, filed suit against Exxon in 2010, but the district court ruled in favor of the company four years later. Last year, however, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split from Hittner’s original decision and had him reconsider various aspects of the case.

In a 101-page ruling, Hittner accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that Exxon received more than $14.2 million in so-called economic benefits by delaying actions that would have curbed the emissions.

“This penalty should send a message that it doesn’t pay to illegally pollute,” said David Nicholas, a Massachusetts attorney who represented the plaintiff.

Exxon’s Baytown complex includes a chemical plant, olefins plant and refining operations and is the employer of about 7,000 people. It is located about 25 miles east of Houston.

Exxon had already paid $1.4 million in fines to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Harris County at the time of the suit. However, citizens are able to file lawsuit against companies they believe are in violation of federal environmental laws thanks to the Clean Air Act’s provision, especially if the government is not enforcing the law.

Exxon will pay the $19.95 million civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury Department unless it appeals. Exxon did say that it is considering legal options which may include appealing the ruling.

“We disagree with the court’s decision and the award of any penalty,” Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler said in an emailed statement. “As the court expressed in its decision, Exxon Mobil’s full compliance history and good faith efforts to comply weigh against assessing any penalty.”

Philip Hilder, principal of Houston law firm Hilder & Associates, helped represent the plaintiffs and said he believes its the largest judgment of civil penalties returned under a Clean Air Act citizen suit.

“We’re thrilled with the ruling and excited Exxon is finally being held accountable for thousands of violations,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “We’re glad they’ll face significant penalties and hope that’ll serve as a warning to other companies.”

Exxon has lowered its emissions at its enormous Baytown complex since 2010. The complex has been in operation since 1920 and is located on over 3,000 acres along the Houston Ship Channel.

Regardless, Exxon Mobil is nearing completion of a multibillion-dollar petrochemical expansion at Baytown despite the company’s needs to stay within existing emissions caps. Metzger and his group as well as others, plan to keep a close eye on emissions levels next year after the expansion is completed.

“There’s still work to be done,” he said.

The Baytown complex is the largest facility of its kind in the world, its capable of processing over 550,000 barrels of oil per day, and produces 13 billion pounds of petrochemical products a year.

Article written by HEI contributor Lydia Ezeakor.

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