ExxonMobil fails to stop clean-air lawsuit against Texas refinery

08 June 2011 19:01  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--A federal court rejected ExxonMobil's attempt to dismiss an $81.25m (€55.3m) lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, which accused the company of repeatedly violating the nation's Clean Air Act at its Baytown complex in Texas, the environmental group said on Wednesday.

In December, the Sierra Club and Environment Texas sued the refiner, alleging that the company's Baytown complex has emitted more than 8m lb (3,600 tonnes) of pollutants into the air over the last five years.

The Sierra Club accused ExxonMobil of 2,500 clean-air violations.

The Sierra Club filed the lawsuit under the Clean Air Act's citizen suit provision. This allows private citizens harmed by violations to bring a federal lawsuit after providing 60 days prior notice.

ExxonMobil had said that the Sierra Club's lawsuit did not meet the standards set forth by the citizen suit provision. As such, ExxonMobil requested that the court dismiss the lawsuit.

Texas already has regulations that address the concerns of the lawsuit, ExxonMobil said in its motion to dismiss the case.

As it stands, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have adequately enforced environmental regulations, ExxonMobil said. As a result, environmental regulators have resolved the problems that underlie the Sierra Club's lawsuit.

The Sierra Club is acting like a private attorney general, ExxonMobil said. Given the state's exhaustive regulations, the producer said, there is no need for such a private attorney.

"Citizens are to supplement, not supplant, state and federal enforcement," ExxonMobil said in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit. "Plaintiffs have failed to state the legal basis for this court overhaul of the state regulatory process."

The Sierra Club's lawsuit is nothing more than a simple catalogue of ExxonMobil's filings with state environmental regulators, the company said. Such filings are merely one step in the regulatory and enforcement process, the producer said, to which the Baytown complex complies.

Such a catalogue is too weak to justify the Sierra Club's lawsuit, ExxonMobil said.

The Sierra Club argued that the violations are not simply a list of unrelated, disparate events. Instead, the violations are caused by a set of long-standing systemic problems, such as equipment failures, poor record keeping and operational issues.

ExxonMobil can address these recurring problems through better planning, better maintenance and better training, the Sierra Club said in its response to ExxonMobil's motion for dismissal.

Moreover, the state's regulations failed to stop ExxonMobil from repeatedly violating environmental regulations, the Sierra Club said. The Baytown complex continued to violate the regulations even after the Sierra Club sued ExxonMobil, the Sierra Club said.

"The Baytown refinery's upset record has been getting worse," the Sierra Club said.

ExxonMobil's argument demonstrates a culture of non-compliance, the Sierra Club said.

"The fact is, Exxon can proactively take steps to prevent future violations, and this court can fashion relief that will compel the company to do so," the Sierra Club said.

In a statement, ExxonMobil said, "the court's decision is not a comment on the merits of the case itself".

Neil Carman of the Sierra Club said, “Baytown residents want to breathe as little of Exxon’s chemical soup as possible, and it’s hard to believe Exxon does not understand that."

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).

In addition to the refinery, the Baytown complex also includes the Baytown Chemical Plant and the Baytown Olefins Plant.

The downstream plants produce chemicals including benzene, butadiene (BD), butyl rubber, ethylene, orthoxylene (OX), paraxylene (PX), polypropylene (PP), propylene and toluene.

The ExxonMobil lawsuit is the third filed by the Sierra Club. 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 likely the largest in an environmental citizen suit in Texas history, and nationally one of the largest ever against a single facility, the Sierra Club 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 = €0.68)

For more on ExxonMobil visit ICIS company intelligence

By: Al Greenwood
+1 713 525 2645

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

For the latest chemical news, data and analysis that directly impacts your business sign up for a free trial to ICIS news - the breaking online news service for the global chemical industry.

Get the facts and analysis behind the headlines from our market leading weekly magazine: sign up to a free trial to ICIS Chemical Business.

Printer Friendly

Get access to breaking chemical news as it happens.
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX)
ICIS Global Petrochemical Index (IPEX). Download the free tabular data and a chart of the historical index