Bench trial against ExxonMobil by environmental groups begins in Houston

By Marilyn Tennissen | Feb 11, 2014

A trial is underway in Houston that pits environmental groups against the largest refinery in Southeast Texas.

The Sierra Club and Environment Texas Citizens Lobby Inc. took ExxonMobil to court over allegations it allowed millions of pounds of toxic chemicals to be released from its Baytown refinery. 

A bench trial against Irving-based ExxonMobil began Feb. 10 before U.S. District Judge David Hittner.

ExxonMobil’s Baytown facility includes an oil refinery, chemical plant and olefins plant, and according to the lawsuit, it is the largest petroleum and petrochemical complex in the U.S. and the largest refinery in the country.

The environmental groups are filing on behalf of their members that live near the refinery. They claim that the Baytown refinery violated federal air permits. According to the suit, between 2005 and 2010 there had been thousands of accidental releases at the refinery and allegedly more than 8 million pounds of pollutants including benzene and sulfur dioxide were released into the air.

“According to the most recent publicly available inventories of air pollution from stationary sources, the Baytown Complex emits more pollutants into the air than any other industrial complex in Harris County,” the complaint states.

Tens of thousands of people live within 3 miles of the facility and hundreds of thousands live within 10 miles, the plaintiffs state.

“These excess emissions of pollutants have adverse impacts on these individuals’ health, and on their recreational, aesthetic and other interests,” the suit states.

The plaintiffs allege that includes chest congestion, coughing, fatigue, headaches, itchy eyes and other conditions.

“Plaintiffs’ members worry that the Complex’s excess emissions heighten the risk of cancer,” the suit states.

Plaintiffs also complain of noxious odors, bright flaring in the night sky which cause rumblings and vibrations and lead residents to fear explosions.

According to the complaint, the air violations were caused by widespread problems like equipment failures and malfunctions, operational problems, electrical problems, inadequate maintenance and poor record keeping.

ExxonMobil twice attempted to have the environmentalists’ lawsuits dismissed, arguing the company had already been penalized by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In 2012 the agency fined the company $98,000 and ordered them to reduce the emission of pollutants known as volatile organic compounds.

The plaintiffs are asking Judge Hittner to order that ExxonMobil take appropriate actions to remedy, mitigate or offset the harm to public health and the environment caused by the violations of the Federal Clean Air Act and to access civil penalties of up to $32,500 per day for each violation of the Act prior to Jan. 12, 2009, and up to $37,500 per day for each violation occurring after that date.

The plaintiffs are represented by Philip J. Hilder of Hilder & Associates PC in Houston with David A. Nicholas of Newton, Mass.

ExxonMobil is represented by J. Gregory Copeland of Baker Botts LLP in Houston.

Case No. 4:10-cv-04969

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