Federal Judge Orders Record Penalty Against Exxon for Thousands of Clean Air Act Violations


In yet another loss for ExxonMobil in a historic and long-running environmental enforcement case, a U.S. District Court judge has imposed a $14.25 million penalty to punish the company for violating the federal laws—the largest yet imposed in a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement suit.

Exxon has been fighting this case for 11 years now, but last July, a three-judge panel had rejected most of the arguments Exxon had made in its appeal of the original $19.95 million penalty in this case.

The appellate court sent the case back to Judge David Hittner to make additional findings as to how many of the thousands of proven Clean Air Act violations were of a type or magnitude that was “capable of causing” the kinds of harms suffered by those who live near the sprawling refinery and chemical plant complex in Baytown, Texas.

Exxon’s 3,400-acre facility sits about 25 miles east of downtown Houston, and tens of thousands of people live within three miles of the complex.

In his new opinion, Judge Hittner found that the environmental groups had proven at trial that over 3,651 days (8 years) thousands of instances of illegal flaring and unauthorized releases of pollutants causing smoke, chemical odors, ground-level ozone, and respiratory problems were “fairly traceable” to the injuries plaintiffs suffered.

“We are extremely pleased that Judge Hittner has, once again, assessed a civil penalty against Exxon that is larger than any penalty ever imposed in a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement suit,” said National Environmental Law Center senior attorney Josh Kratka, who was part of the legal team representing Environment Texas and Sierra Club.

In support of his penalty assessment, Judge Hittner pointed to the fact that Exxon had committed more than one violation every single day for a period of eight years.

This case follows successful cases the same groups brought against Shell Oil Company for violations at its Deer Park refinery, Chevron Phillips for violations at its Cedar Bayou plant, and Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc. for violations at the Pasadena refinery.

“Exxon’s Baytown refinery-chemical complex is the largest polluter on the Houston Ship Channel impacting the air quality of hundreds of thousands of citizens,” stated Neil Carman, clean air program director, Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “Exxon Baytown still needs to clean up its act and do more to create cleaner air in the Houston area,” he added.