A federal judge ordered Exxon Mobil to pay a US$19.9 million penalty for illegal emissions from one of its refining and chemical complex in Baytown, Texas.
In a 101-page decision handed down Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner found that from 2005 to 2013, there were 16,386 days of violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act by the company. Ten million pounds (4.5 million kilograms) of pollutants had been released from the company's Baytown complex.
With about 7,000 employees and daily production of up to 550,000 barrels of oil per day, the Baytown complex is one the largest of its kind in the world. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates the complex, had fined Exxon US$1.4 million for pollution. That amount was deducted from the penalty this time.
This citizen lawsuit was filed in 2010 by two environmental groups, Environmental Texas and the Sierra Club. They accused the company of failing to implement technology that would curb emissions at the Baytown complex and gained more than US$14 million in economic benefits.
Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency allows anyone in the U.S. to file suit against any person or company that violates the law if the government fails to act.
"We think it might be the largest citizen suit penalty in U.S. history," Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said. "It definitely means it pays not to pollute."
In 2014, Hittner ruled in favor of Exxon, saying the company’s behavior didn’t warrant a penalty. Last year, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined Hittner had errored in the ruling and sent the case back to Hittner to reassess Exxon’s liability.
Exxon said it will consider possible legal options, including appealing the ruling. Otherwise, it will have to pay the penalty to the federal government.
"We disagree with the court's decision and the award of any penalty," Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler said in a statement to the Reuters. "As the court expressed in its decision, Exxon Mobil's full compliance history and good faith efforts to comply weigh against assessing any penalty."
The Baytown complex is located about 25 miles east of downtown Houston, with tens of thousands of people living within 3 miles from the complex.
“Today’s decision sends a resounding message that it will not pay to pollute Texas,” Neil Carman, a former air inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said in a media release. “We will not stand idly by when polluters put our health and safety at risk.”