Exxon On Trial
HOUSTON – Standing before a packed federal courtroom on the final day of trial, NELC Senior Attorney Josh Kratka and NELC cooperating attorney David Nicholas delivered a simple message to U.S. District Judge David Hittner: Hold ExxonMobil accountable for its thousands of violations of the federal Clean Air Act at the nation’s largest refinery and chemical plant complex in Baytown, Texas.
Speaking on behalf of Plaintiffs Environment Texas and Sierra Club and their individual members, who offered dramatic testimony during the 3-week trial about noxious emissions and frightening flaring events, the two attorneys laid out the reasons why Judge Hittner, sitting without a jury, should install an independent monitor to oversee environmental compliance at the Baytown Complex and impose a multi-million dollar civil penalty on the world’s largest oil company.
The primary focus of the suit is illegal emissions of air pollutants—toxic chemicals such as carcinogens and respiratory irritants—resulting from nearly 4,000 so-called “emission events” at the Baytown Complex since 2005 (see graphic on p. 4). Such emission events stem from a variety of causes, including equipment breakdowns and malfunctions, operator error, and poor design.
Dr. Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, testified during the trial that more than 10 million pounds of pollutants have been released during these emission events.
Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger testified that these emission events resulted in approximately 18,000 separate violations of federal law.
The Clean Air Act provides for a maximum civil penalty of $37,500 per day of violation, and NELC argued that in this case the maximum penalty is appropriate.
“Exxon’s terrible track record of non-compliance, the serious nature of its violations, and its attempts to evade responsibility by asking state regulators to undercut this enforcement suit, all point to a penalty at the top end of the scale,” explained Kratka.
Two expert witnesses, a refinery engineer and an economist, provided evidence that Exxon’s violations are the result of a long history of under- spending on preventive maintenance and plant upgrades, a shortfall estimated to be $90 million per year.
To put that number in context, Exxon-Mobil made $90 million in net profits every 18 hours in 2012, when its after-tax profit was $44 billion.
A final decision by Judge Hittner is not expected until later this summer.