On April 26, 2017, the National Environmental Law Center (NELC)—the environmental litigation arm of The Public Interest Network—won a significant victory for our environment and public health. We started NELC 27 years ago to make this exact kind of impact and have won more than 60 cases.
Representing plaintiffs Environment Texas (one of our state environmental groups) and the Sierra Club, NELC attorneys prevailed in a federal lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corporation.
Over the course of eight years, ExxonMobil’s Baytown, Texas, refinery and chemical plant—one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the country—emitted 10 million pounds of illegal air pollution. This included carcinogens, other toxic air pollutants, and respiratory irritants that affected tens of thousands of people living within the three-mile radius of the complex.
After initially ruling in favor of ExxonMobil Corporation and then being overturned on appeal, a federal district court judge found ExxonMobil guilty of violating the Clean Air Act. The judge imposed a $19.95 million penalty—which we believe is the largest civil penalty ever awarded in an environmental citizen suit—as punishment for more than 16,000 days of violations at Exxon’s Baytown refinery.
In his 101-page decision, Judge Hittner found that Exxon profited—with a price tag estimate of more than $14 million—by delaying implementation of necessary pollution control measures. This coupled with the vast number of violations Exxon committed all weighed in favor of imposing a heavy penalty.
“After six years of litigation against one of the state’s biggest polluters, justice has finally been served,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “The appeals court ruling confirms that even the world’s most powerful corporations must be held accountable when they violate our environmental and public health laws.”
At trial, plaintiffs Environment Texas and Sierra Club submitted thousands of pages of Exxon’s own legally mandated reports of violations, and the groups’ attorneys subjected Exxon witnesses to many hours of cross-examination, using Exxon’s own words to prove that the company had violated its state-issued, federally mandated operating permits.
More than ever before, the negative environmental and public health consequences of economic growth are outstripping the benefits, diminishing our lives rather than enriching them. You could hardly find a more striking example than Exxon’s Baytown refinery complex. Four members of the environmental groups testified about their personal experiences living next to the complex, describing how they have suffered through foul odors, poor air quality, and the fear that with each massive flaring event a potential explosion could follow.
“This ruling shows how crucial the citizen enforcement provision of the Clean Air Act really is for Texas residents. It means 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,” said Metzger.
While we’re thrilled by our victory, we still have more work to do. ExxonMobil attorneys have filed a notice of their intent to appeal the decision. We'll see them in court.