Environment Texas and Sierra Club Sue ExxonMobil To Stop Illegal Air Emissions At Baytown Refinery Complex

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Groups Allege Thousands of Violations at Nation’s Largest Refinery/Chemical Plant Complex, Millions of Pounds of Illegal Pollution

Environment Texas

HOUSTON – Sierra Club and Environment Texas filed a lawsuit today in federal district court against ExxonMobil Corporation and two subsidiaries to enforce thousands of violations of the Clean Air Act at the nation’s largest oil refinery and chemical plant complex, located in Baytown, Texas. 

This is the groups’ third federal lawsuit in three years targeting illegal air emissions in the Houston area arising from so-called “upset” events.  It follows on the heels of ground-breaking settlements with Shell Oil Company, which paid a $5.8 million penalty and agreed to upgrade its Deer Park refinery and chemical plant, and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, which has agreed to pay a $2 million penalty and upgrade its Cedar Bayou Chemical Plant once the settlement is approved by a federal judge.  

The groups say emissions from upsets at Exxon’s Baytown complex exceed those in the Shell and Chevron Phillips cases combined:  over eight million pounds of pollution in the past five years alone, including toxic chemicals such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene, and large releases of hydrogen chloride, a severe respiratory irritant.

“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,” said Luke Metzger, Executive Director of Environment Texas.

“Air quality in Harris County, and especially along the Houston Ship Channel, continues to be among the worst in the nation,” explained Dr. Neil Carman, a chemist and the Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star Chapter of Sierra Club.  “Whether you’re talking about high levels of ozone that make it difficult to breathe or about toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, industrial facilities like Exxon’s Baytown plant are major contributors to the problem.”

The lawsuit alleges that equipment breakdowns, malfunctions, and other non-routine incidents at the Baytown Complex since 2005 have resulted in the release of more than eight million pounds of pollutants into the surrounding air, frequently in violation of legal limits.  For example, just two months ago, two such “emissions events” occurred on the same day.  According to Exxon’s own reports:

•    At 6:10 a.m. on October 16, 2010, a broken hose at the Baytown Olefins Plant released more than 15,000 pounds of chemical fumes into the air, most of them toxic or carcinogenic, in just 30 minutes;

•    At 1:30 p.m. that same day, over at the Baytown Refinery, an underground pipe began to leak, and Exxon did not shut it down for 28 hours, until more than 50 tons of volatile organic compounds and 81 pounds of benzene escaped into the air.

The lawsuit also alleges that ExxonMobil’s “Deviation Reports” submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reported over 2,500 violations at the Baytown Complex over the past five years.  These violations included flare outages, monitoring violations, tank failures, and open-ended lines of piping that are capable of releasing gases.

ExxonMobil’s 3,400-acre complex in Baytown, Texas, is located about 25 miles east of downtown Houston and consists of an oil refinery – the nation’s largest – and two petrochemical plants.  Residential neighborhoods are within one mile downwind of each facility, and tens of thousands of people live within three miles of the complex. 

ExxonMobil, headquartered in Irving, Texas is the largest publicly traded company in the world, making $45.2 billion in profit during 2008.

The Clean Air Act contains a “citizen suit” provision that allows private citizens affected by violations of the law to bring an enforcement suit in federal court if state and federal regulators do not.  

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring ExxonMobil to end its Clean Air Act violations.  In addition, ExxonMobil faces civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day for each violation of the Clean Air Act.  

Sierra Club has approximately 24,000 members in Texas who are protecting parks and wildlands and promoting a clean energy future for human health and natural resources.  

Environment Texas advocates for clean air, clean water, and preservation of Texas’s natural areas on behalf of approximately 5,000 members statewide.  

The lawsuit was filed by Josh Kratka and Bracha Statman of the National Environmental Law Center, attorney David Nicholas of Newton, Massachusetts, and Houston attorney Philip Hilder; copies of the complaint are available upon request.