A federal appeals court gave environmental groups a win in their case over a Texas Exxon Mobil Corp. refinery, potentially opening the company to new emissions penalties.
The Sierra Club and Environment Texas see the unanimous opinion from the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit as a major victory in the six-year legal battle over the Baytown, Texas, refinery.
The three-judge panel ruled late Friday that a lower court incorrectly chose to disregard many of the air pollution events over which the green groups sued and instructed the lower court to reconsider the case with instructions to take those events into account.
The court said that the judge in the district court case erred when he found that only 94 of the thousands of alleged violations were “actionable” and that even if more events were considered, Exxon should not be subject to penalties.
The circuit panel sent the case back down to the lower court “for assessment of penalties based on the correct number of actionable violations.”
“After six years of litigation against one of the state’s biggest polluters, justice has finally been served,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said in a statement. “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.”
The Sierra Club said the decision is important for nearby areas suffering from air pollution problems.
“This is welcome news for the tens of thousands of people who live downwind of Exxon’s Baytown complex, the largest manufacturing facility in the country,” said Dr. Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “We cannot get clean air in Houston if one of the region’s most persistent polluters can violate the Clean Air Act with impunity.”
Exxon said its still reviewing the court’s decision but pointed to some victories in the ruling, including the appeals court’s affirmation that Exxon acted in good faith and has a good compliance record, which are favorable factors for determining penalties.
“In addition, the appellate court recognized the district court's finding that none of the events in question actually or potentially harmed public health or the environment,” said Todd Spitler, an Exxon spokesman.