Texans Hold Exxon Accountable For Years Of Illegal Air Pollution

Federal appeals court affirms $14.25 million civil penalty for Exxon’s illegal pollution in one of the longest-running environmental enforcement suits


Alexandria Trimble, Earthjustice, atrimble@earthjustice.org

Yesterday, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Exxon for the third time and upheld a record $14.25 million civil penalty in one of the longest-running environmental enforcement suits ever brought under the federal Clean Air Act. The panel reaffirmed the district court’s findings that environmental group plaintiffs Sierra Club and Environment Texas had legal standing to sue Exxon for thousands of violations in which the company illegally released dangerous pollutants over a period of eight years at its Baytown, Texas, oil refinery and chemical plant complex and reaffirmed that Exxon must pay this penalty to the U.S. treasury to deter ongoing and future clean air violations.

Sierra Club and Environment Texas, represented by attorneys at the nonprofit National Environmental Law Center, sued Exxon on behalf of their members who are residents living near the Baytown complex where Exxon illegally released millions of pounds of sulfur dioxide, ozone-forming chemicals and toxic and carcinogenic pollutants into surrounding neighborhoods. On appeal, Earthjustice filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a local environmental group, Air Alliance Houston, in concert with the University of Texas School of Law Environmental Clinic. The City of Houston and Harris County Attorney Office joined this amicus brief.

“This decision reaffirms that community members can hold polluters accountable and stand up for their fundamental right to clean air in court. No petrochemical company should be able to delay justice for over a decade while continuing to pollute the air. It’s time to put this matter to rest, because Gulf communities need protection now more than ever from the harm caused by the oil industry,” said Mary Rock, attorney for Earthjustice.

“People across the Houston area have been exposed to toxic chemicals from polluters like Exxon for far too long because Texas’ regulatory agencies literally allow them to operate this way. In Texas, it can cost less to be caught polluting than to continue to pollute. We cannot accept this. Today’s decision makes it clear that the courts won’t accept it either,” said Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.

“Exxon violated its air permits thousands of times and emitted illegal air pollution for years. This decision rightfully recognizes that Exxon’s illegal pollution had real impacts on the lives of the surrounding community and that Exxon should be held accountable for its violations,” said Kelly Haragan, director of the University of Texas School of Law Environmental Clinic.

The Clean Air Act is designed to protect public health, especially in places like the Houston area that have unsafe levels of pollution. The law’s enforcement provision recognizes that people exposed to and hurt by pollution have the greatest interest in making sure clean air protections are enforced to protect their health and safety, and gives them the right to bring suit to complement governmental enforcement.

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