A federal judge ordered Exxon Mobil to pay a $14.25 million civil penalty Tuesday in an 11-year-old lawsuit alleging it violated the Clean Air Act for eight years at its flagship Baytown, Texas, refinery.
In setting the penalty, which would go to the U.S. Treasury, U.S. District Judge David Hittner of Houston reduced a previous award he handed down in 2017 of almost $20 million. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling on Exxon’s appeal last July and remanded the case to Hittner.
In a statement, Exxon Mobil spokesman Todd Spitler said the company is "currently reviewing the decision and considering next steps." Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, the nonprofit advocacy group that filed the suit in 2010, said he expected further appeals.
The group Environment Texas sued the Irving, Texas-based company in 2010. After a trial of almost three weeks in 2014, Hittner ruled against the company and ordered the larger penalty two years later. The appeals court remanded the case to Hittner last July.
"We hope that after all this time, and after Exxon’s continued losses that they will finally stop their scorched-earth legal tactics and their continued appeals and accept responsibility, pay the fine, and focus on reducing emissions," Metzger said.
In his latest opinion, filed Tuesday, Hittner said Environment Texas, the Sierra Club and the National Environmental Law Center had proved thousands of instances of illegal flaring and unauthorized releases of pollutants causing smoke, chemical odors, ground-level ozone, and respiratory problems.
Metzger said he hopes this sets a precedent for future citizen lawsuits against Clean Air Act violations.
"We’ve taken two different trips to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. And so to have the court two times validate and confirm the rights of citizens to sue polluters when the government fails to hold them accountable is, I think, very important in terms of legal precedent," he said.
Environment Texas has filed three other similar cases in the past. Metzger said they don't currently have any other lawsuits in the pipeline, but they're looking at potential cases.
In its annual report on unauthorized emissions in the state, Environment Texas found that companies only face financial penalties about 3% of the time.
"Until we see the state take enforcement seriously, and we stop having the big explosions and fires and even smaller, more routine releases of toxic pollution, we’re going to keep suing and working to hold polluters accountable," he said.
Additional reporting by Houston Public Media’s Katie Watkins