HOUSTON, TX — After initially ruling in favor of ExxonMobil Corporation and then being overturned on appeal, U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner on April 26 found that ExxonMobil violated the federal Clean Air Act 16,386 times at its Baytown, Texas, refinery and chemical plant complex.
As a result, Judge Hittner ordered Exxon to pay a fine of $19.95 million, which appears to be the largest civil penalty ever imposed in an environmental “citizen suit.”
The ruling is a stunning reversal of fortune for the members of Environment Texas and Sierra Club, the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who live near Exxon’s 3,400-acre Baytown complex. The complex is the largest industrial facility in the United States— roughly the size of lower Manhattan—and released more than 10 million pounds of illegal pollution into the air from 2005 through 2013.
“This case exemplifies the value of hard work and the importance of never giving up a good fight,” said NELC Senior Attorney Josh Kratka, our lead attorney on the case. “It also shows that private citizens victimized by the world’s biggest polluters can get justice in the American court system, even when government regulators look the other way.”
In his 101-page decision, Judge Hittner found that Exxon profited—to the tune of more than $14 million—by delaying implementation of several necessary pollution control measures.
The ruling has been widely hailed as a precedent-setting victory, and a beacon of hope amidst the assault on environmental safeguards under the new administration in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the long-running case is still not over. Four weeks after Judge Hittner’s ruling, Exxon’s attorneys filed a motion asking the judge to “alter or amend the judgment,” seeking a reduction or complete elimination of the record-setting penalty. NELC attorneys have vigorously opposed Exxon’s eleventh-hour plea, citing the solid legal and evidentiary basis for the heavy penalty.
“Private citizens victimized by the world’s biggest polluters can get justice in the American court system, even when government regulators look the other way.”
— JOSH KRATKA
NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL LAW CENTER SENIOR ATTORNEY
Regardless of the final resolution, the impact of NELC’s lawsuit on Exxon’s compliance record has been far reaching: the occurrence of the most serious violations has dropped by roughly 90 percent since the initiation of the litigation.