Residents and environmental groups in Baytown, a city 26 miles east of Houston, are trying to force ExxonMobil to limit air pollution and pay a fine for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act for years.
ExxonMobil reportedly violated its pollution permits over 16,000 times between 2005 and 2013, the equivalent of roughly five times per day on average.
This led to a citizen suit from residents, resulting in a $14 million penalty, one of the largest of its kind against a U.S. corporation, according to the Houston Chronicle.
ExxonMobil has since fought the record penalty, appealing the ruling three times over the last 13 years, according to the Sierra Club. In August of last year, a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against ExxonMobil, upholding the penalty in a split decision.
That seemingly settled things. However, in late February, the Fifth Circuit granted ExxonMobil’s petition for an en banc review of the panel’s split decision and vacated that decision. Oral arguments in the case are tentatively scheduled for May 15.
“They explicitly argue that citizens should not be allowed to bring wide-ranging enforcement actions, that [this] usurps the role of the government, which betrays exactly what they’re scared of: citizens taking action to enforce the law when government regulators don’t,” said Josh Kratka, a senior lawyer with the National Environmental Law Center who is also one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case against ExxonMobil, reported The Washington Post. “It serves as a warning to anyone who wants to sue Exxon for doing anything.”
ExxonMobil alleges that the environmental protection groups backing the case, Environment Texas and the Sierra Club, have failed to prove that the plaintiffs were injured by each of the more than 16,000 air pollution violations reported between 2005 and 2013, according to The Washington Post.
“Long-settled law requires that citizens who bring claims for relief under the Clean Air Act show that they were actually injured by an event occurring at an industrial facility,” said ExxonMobil spokesman Todd Spitler, per The Washington Post. “The law does not permit anyone, including environmental advocacy groups, to misuse the law in the way it has been misused in this case.”
In response to the lawsuit, ExxonMobil made changes to its Baytown refinery that have reduced emissions. The company says the upgrade cost approximately $1 billion, per The Washington Post.
Despite the reduced emissions, however, ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery emits the most total dissolved solids in the country, according to a recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project based on data from 2021.
For its violations of clean air regulations, the refinery was fined by Texas environmental regulators only five times, totaling $156,000, in 2021 and 2022, according to The Washington Post.
Although a $14 million fine may seem like a drop in the bucket for a company that earned $55.7 billion last year, as previously reported by The Dallas Express, ExxonMobil is adamant about fighting the penalty because a loss in court could prompt a wave of similar lawsuits, according to The Washington Post.
Baytown has around 83,000 people and contains three major chemical manufacturing sites operated by Chevron Phillips, Covestro, and ExxonMobil.