Circuit court rules against ExxonMobil a third time, upholds record Clean Air Act penalty
NEW ORLEANS—On August 30, the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals again ruled against ExxonMobil Corporation in a long-running case and upheld a $14.25 million civil penalty imposed by the trial court.
The trial judge imposed this sizeable fine to sanction the company for profiting from 3,651 instances of illegal flaring and other unauthorized releases of pollutants over a period of eight years at its Baytown, Texas, oil refinery and chemical plant complex, and to deter future violations.
“After 13 years of litigation—including a three-week trial, two appeals, two remands of the case to the trial court for additional findings, and three appellate decisions against them—it is long past time for Exxon to accept responsibility and finally pay what it owes to the public for years of illegal, toxic pollution,” said NELC Senior Attorney Josh Kratka.
The case centers on thousands of so-called “upset” events at Exxon’s Baytown complex, the largest manufacturing facility in the country. From 2005 to 2013, Exxon illegally released millions of pounds of sulfur dioxide, ozone-forming chemicals, and toxic and carcinogenic pollutants into surrounding neighborhoods, where members of plaintiffs Environment Texas and Sierra Club live.
Of primary importance for this and other citizen enforcement suits, the majority decision by a three-judge appellate panel flatly rejected Exxon’s arguments that the two environmental groups lacked legal “standing” to seek civil penalties against Exxon. The panel affirmed the trial judge’s finding that each of the 3,651 violations was “fairly traceable” to the litany of undisputed injuries suffered by the groups’ members.
Exxon contended that the legal standard for determining “traceability” set out by the 5th Circuit panel at an earlier stage of this appeal was invalid. During the June 28 oral argument, however, when asked by a judge on the panel what standard should be applied, Exxon’s attorney had no clear answer.
“Exxon has essentially been seeking a ‘get out of jail free’ card, trying to persuade the courts that—even though it indisputably committed many thousands of violations of federal law—the very citizens who have the greatest interest in Exxon’s compliance should not even be allowed into court to try to enforce the Clean Air Act as Congress intended them to do,” explained Kratka, who argued the latest appeal on behalf of the citizen groups. “We hope the 5th Circuit panel’s rejection of this untenable defense brings an end to this case.”
“The Court of Appeals’ decision thoroughly discredits Exxon’s attempts to worm out of responsibility for thousands of Clean Air Act violations,” added NELC Litigation Director Chuck Caldart. “The decision affirms the right of citizens to hold even the biggest, deepest-pocketed polluters to account for violating environmental laws.”