UpdateLatest Sierra Club lawsuit targets ExxonMobil

14 December 2010 18:15  [Source: ICIS news]

ExxonMobil Baytown complex(adds paragraphs 7-9, 13-16)

BAYTOWN, Texas (ICIS)--The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are suing ExxonMobil for $81.25m (€60.94m), alleging that the company's Baytown complex is violating the nation's Clean Air Act, the Sierra Club said on Tuesday.  

The groups allege that the complex has emitted more than 8m lb (3,600 tonnes) of pollutants into the air over the last five years.

Neil Carman, clean air programme director of the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, said the lawsuit, filed in federal court, accuses ExxonMobil of 2,500 clean air violations.

ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery is the largest in the US with 560,640 bbl/day of capacity, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Its downstream plants produce chemicals including benzene, butadiene (BD), butyl rubber, ethylene, orthoxylene (OX), paraxylene (PX), polypropylene (PP), propylene and toluene.

“Exxon has had the benefit of running the country’s largest oil refinery under air pollution rules so weak they wouldn’t be allowed in any other state,” said Carman.

“Yet the Baytown refinery has still released more excess pollutants - above and beyond its flexible permit limits - than any other Texas refinery we’ve looked at, including BP’s,” he added.

ExxonMobil did not immediately issue a response.

Sierra Club and Environment Texas twice notified ExxonMobil and regulatory environmental agencies of their intent to sue, once in November 2009 and a second time in July, the groups said.

Despite the notifications, the groups alleged that government regulators had not done enough to stop the pollution. The environmental groups are not suing the regulators.

In fact, Texas caps fines at $10,000/violation, making the state incapable of changing the behaviour of large corporations, according to a statement that the lawsuit attributed to John Sadler, deputy director of the enforcement division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state's environmental regulator.

Moreover, the TCEQ rarely fined ExxonMobil that maximum amount, and frequently forgave as much as half of the assessed penalty, the groups said.

Neither the TCEQ nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal regulator, immediately responded to questions seeking comment.

The Clean Air Act contains a “citizen suit” provision that allows private citizens affected by violations to bring a federal lawsuit after providing 60 days prior notice.

Citizens can seek a court order requiring compliance with the law and a monetary penalty of up to $37,500/day for each violation of the act.

Those alleged violations had caused the Baytown complex to release massive amounts of pollutants, the groups said.

The groups accused ExxonMobil of more than 400 instances of equipment breakdowns, malfunctions and other non-routine incidents at the Baytown complex, resulting in the release of pollutants in violation of hourly limits.

Residential neighbourhoods are located within one mile (1.6km) downwind of each facility at the complex, and almost 15,000 people live within three miles of the complex, the groups said.

On 16 October, a broken hose at the Baytown olefins plant released more than 15,000 lb of chemical fumes in about 30 minutes, the groups said, quoting reports they attributed to ExxonMobil.

Air quality in Harris County - especially along the Houston Ship Channel - continues to be among the worst in the US, according to a statement by Carman.

“As long as major polluters continue to foul our air, and as long as state regulators fail to take effective action, we have a duty to our members and to the public to try to enforce the clean air laws ourselves,” according to a statement by Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.

The lawsuit is the third filed by the two groups. In April 2009, Shell reached a $5.8m settlement and agreed to reduce upset emissions by 80% within three years

The $5.8m civil penalty is believed to be the largest in an environmental citizen suit in Texas history, and nationally one of the largest ever against a single facility, the groups said.

More recently, Chevron Phillips Chemical in November announced a settlement in which it would give $2m to a local college and cap upset emissions by 85%.

($1 = €0.75)

(Additional reporting by Al Greenwood)

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By: Ben DuBose
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