Luke Metzger, the long-time director of Environment Texas, describes his group as “a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protect- ing the air, water, and open spaces of Texas through tough-minded advocacy, winning concrete results for our environment.”
In December 2010, Environment Texas joined the Sierra Club in a lawsuit seeking to compel ExxonMobil to comply with the Clean Air Act at its Baytown refinery and chemical plant complex outside Houston. The case went to trial this past February; the National Environmental Law Center represents both organizations in the case.
Why did Environment Texas decide to sue ExxonMobil for violating the Clean Air Act?
We made a decision several years ago not to sit on the sidelines while the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) lets some of the largest companies in the world foul our air without meaningful consequences. The suit against Exxon is the third we’ve brought against chronic Clean Air Act violators along the Houston Ship Channel, one of the most heavily polluted areas in Texas.
We focused on Exxon because the Baytown Complex has experienced more than 4,000 so-called “emission events” since 2005: That’s an average of more than one a day! Each of these mechanical breakdowns, operator errors, and other failures caused an unauthorized release of air pollutants, adding more than 10 million pounds of flammable, toxic, and smog-forming chemicals to the air.
Because these emissions endanger the health and safety of thousands of Houston-area residents, we decided to blow the whistle on Exxon’s flagrant lawbreaking and demand they clean up their act.
How can citizen groups like Environment Texas get involved when companies violate the law?
The Clean Air Act allows citizen groups to file suit against polluters when the state fails to enforce the law. This right is especially important in a state like Texas, where the TCEQ has been notoriously lax in its enforcement.
What was it like to testify in federal court during the three week long trial of this case in Houston, before Judge David Hittner?
It was pretty intimidating to get cross-examined by Exxon’s top lawyers, but the NELC attorneys did a great job helping me know what to expect and feel comfortable on the stand. It was definitely a profound “speaking truth to power” experience.
I was on the witness stand for several hours, testifying about what Environment Texas is all about as an organization, why we and our members are concerned about illegal pollution from the Baytown Complex, and how the TCEQ has actually coop
erated with Exxon in allowing these violations to continue. And I spent a great deal of time going through the hundreds of pages of spreadsheets that we compiled that document each and every one of Exxon’s 18,000 violations. This is the evidence that I hope will convince Judge Hittner to penalize Exxon and to order them to upgrade the Baytown Complex so that it complies with the law.
Can cases like this actually improve environmental compliance in Texas?
They already have. Our earlier Clean Air Act cases against Shell Oil Company’s Deer Park refinery and chemical plant and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company’s Cedar Bayou chemical plant in Baytown each resulted in binding settlement agreements that forced each company to cut its illegal air pollution by about 95 percent compared to pre-lawsuit levels.
These lawsuits, and the pollution reductions, have caught the attention of other companies and government regulators. A successful result against Exxon would keep the momentum going for clean air.