Environmental Groups Take On Oil Giant

Environment Texas and the Sierra Club have filed a joint lawsuit against ExxonMobil's Baytown facility — the largest oil refinery in the United States. The environmental groups say Exxon continues to violate the clean air act by releasing illegal amounts of pollutants into the air. Laurie Johnson reports.

Environment Texas and the Sierra Club filed the lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corporation in a federal district court here in Houston. The lawsuit accuses the oil giant of violating the Clean Air Act thousands of times at its Baytown chemical plant complex. Luke Metzger is the director of Environment Texas. He says more than 15,000 people live within a three mile radius of the refinery and millions more live within range of the emissions.

"Basically what’s happening is Exxon is routinely and egregiously violating their own permits and discharging chemicals into the community, potentially making people sick."

Metzger says Exxon's own data show in the past five years the plant has released more than eight million pounds of toxic emissions such as benzene, butadiene and hydrogen chloride. Stuart Halpryn and his wife and four children live about a quarter mile from the refinery's fence line.He says he's lived there seven years and he's worried about the health of his family as well as the investment he's made in his home.

"We've been hit very hard by some of the releases. It has sickened my children. I don't know what the end results are going to be down the line for my children, who are in the developmental stage right now, wherein these types of products really can have a long term hidden effect on them. And I'm upset."

In a written statement, ExxonMobil responded to the allegations saying the total annual emissions at its Baytown facility are nearly 40 percent below EPA standards. But this lawsuit deals with so-called "upset" events and other non-routine incidents in which equipment breaks or malfunctions lead to chemical releases. Attorney David Nicholas represents Environment Texas and the Sierra Club in the litigation. He says they're seeking a court-ordered injunction to force ExxonMobil to bring those deviations into compliance.

"We're also seeking a monetary penalty, which would not go to the groups, but would either go to the government or to public health or environmental projects in the area. We're seeking a penalty in an amount that would reflect the seriousness of the violations."

The lawsuit seeks civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day for each violation of the Clean Air Act. Total damages could amount to nearly $80 million. Exxon says the company will defend itself against the allegations and is proud of its record on improving the environmental performance of the Baytown complex.

And while it might seem like a long shot for two environmental groups to take on the world's largest publicly traded company, you should know they have been victorious in two similar lawsuits already. One against Shell was settled when the company agreed to pay $5.8 million and upgrade its Deer Park refinery. The other lawsuit settlement is an agreement with Chevron for that company to pay a $2 million penalty and upgrade its Cedar Bayou plant, which is also in Baytown.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...