Justice Is Served: Federal Judge Issues Record Penalty Against ExxonMobil Ruling Widely Hailed as a Precedent-Setting Victory

NELC Paralegal Mary Rock reviews evidence during the February 2014 trial of NELC’s Clean Air Act case against Exxon.

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.”


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.

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Connecticut Metal Galvanizer Ceases All Discharges Into Streams

Thanks to the settlement of NELC’s lawsuit, the Connecticut Galvanizing facility will no longer be discharging pollutants into Salmon Brook, thus protecting this sensitive aquatic environment for future generations.

GLASTONBURY, CT — In compliance with a consent decree entered by U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Meyer on October 18, 2016, a metal galvanizing facility owned and operated by Connecticut Galvanizing Corporation and Highway Safety Corporation has completed installation of a stormwater collection and treatment system to remove heavy metals and other pollutants from its stormwater discharges.

The consent decree and the collection and treatment system were made possible by NELC members, whose years of support helped fund the staff who brought this lawsuit. The suit, filed on behalf of Environment Connecticut and Toxics Action Center, alleged more than 2,000 violations of the Clean Water Act.

Once the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection issues the necessary discharge permit for the new treatment system, the Connecticut Galvanizing facility will discharge all treated stormwater runoff into the Glastonbury sewage treatment system. This will effectively end the facility’s pollution of Salmon Brook and Hubbard Brook—into which the facility previously discharged untreated stormwater— ensuring that the aquatic environments NELC sued to protect will no longer be the dumping grounds for these pollutants.

“It is a testament to the long-term efforts of the plaintiff groups and the concerned local citizenry that we were able to achieve this result and stop the pollution of these neighborhood streams,” said NELC Staff Attorney Kevin Budris.

Prior to NELC’s suit, the Connecticut Galvanizing facility had for many years delayed the implementation of reasonable measures to reduce zinc, lead, copper, and other pollutant levels in its stormwater, discharging high levels of these pollutants into the brooks each time it rained.

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NELC Sues Landfill As Contamination Spreads To 88 Homes

NELC Staff Attorney Kevin Budris (left) was joined by plaintiffs Toxics Action Center and Environment Massachusetts to announce our lawsuit against Casella Waste Systems, Southbridge Recycling & Disposal Park and the Town of Southbridge, Mass.

SOUTHBRIDGE, MA — On June 9, NELC attorneys filed a citizen enforcement suit against Casella Waste Systems, Inc., Southbridge Recycling & Disposal Park, Inc., and the Town of Southbridge under the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The lawsuit alleges that a landfill operated by the companies and owned by the town is contaminating the underground aquifer that provides drinking water for homes in Sturbridge and Charlton, Mass., and is illegally discharging pollutants into a nearby stream and wetlands.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on behalf of Toxics Action Center and Environment Massachusetts, as well as 99 individuals who live near the landfill in Charlton.

At present, 88 drinking water wells in Sturbridge and Charlton have tested positive for the presence of pollutants such as lead, 1,4-dioxane (a suspected carcinogen), or chlorinated volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethylene (a known carcinogen). Groundwater monitoring performed by the companies indicates that the landfill is releasing elevated levels of each of these pollutants.

“I am proud to stand with concerned residents and the scores of people who can no longer drink their well water,” said Claire Miller of Toxics Action Center. “This is a public health crisis and it is unacceptable.”

After NELC filed suit, new information reported by the companies to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has further revealed the extent of the pollutant releases at the landfill and illuminated the process by which the landfill’s pollutants are contaminating drinking water.

Along with the monitoring results, the companies also reported the results of a geophysical survey of bedrock fractures at the landfill. The survey indicates that bedrock fractures at the landfill are oriented in the direction of the contaminated drinking water wells, providing a direct pathway for pollutants from the landfill to migrate to residents’ water.

NELC intends to use this new information, along with the extensive history of pollutant releases at the landfill and the corresponding contamination of drinking water wells, to hold the companies accountable and compel them to remediate the ongoing harm.

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NELC Welcomes New Paralegal Lauren Aragon

BOSTON, MA — In May, Lauren Aragon joined NELC’s Boston office as the organization’s new paralegal and office administrator.

Lauren comes to NELC from U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit advocacy group for the public interest, where she worked on a variety of transportation-focused issues such as a campaign advocating that Volkswagen settlement funds be used to electrify our transportation system.

Lauren is a 2015 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, where she completed her master’s in international economics and development, as well as B.A.s in international studies and economics. While at college, she interned at the Oklahoma State Senate, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs,and the Heritage Foundation, while also being involved in the university’s student government legislative branch. These experiences led to Lauren’s decision to join the team at NELC.

“I love the work that NELC does to keep both companies and state environmental agencies accountable to the residents they’re supposed to protect,” said Aragon. “We need to ensure everyone is aware that breaking the law is unacceptable and that someone will protect citizens’ rights to clean water and clean air.”

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