US judge denies ExxonMobil request to cut US$20m pollution fine

A federal judge in Houston, Texas recently denied ExxonMobil’s request to reduce a nearly US$20 million civil penalty for releasing millions of pounds of air pollutants from its Baytown refinery over the course of eight years.

According to the August 5th edition of the Houston Chronicle, US District Judge David Hittner rejected ExxonMobil’s argument that he should recalculate the amount of money the company saved by not making technological improvements – such as boosting emissions monitoring with infrared imaging technology – that could have prevented violations of the Clean Air Act.

In a statement, ExxonMobil said it disagreed with the ruling and would appeal Hittner’s decision.

“ExxonMobil’s full compliance history and good faith efforts to comply weigh against assessing any penalty,” said Suann Guthrie, a spokeswoman, the Houston Chronicle reported. “The court has recognized that none of the events in question actually or potentially harmed public health or the environment.”

In April, Hittner ordered ExxonMobil to pay the penalty for releasing 10 million pounds of pollutants into the air from the Baytown refining and chemical complex from 2005 to 2013. This constituted a victory for environmental groups that sued the company in 2010. The Texas Tribune listed the plaintiffs in the matter as the Sierra Club and Environment Texas.

The judge found that ExxonMobil collected more than US$14 million in economic benefits by delaying technological improvements.

In May, ExxonMobil asked the court to reconsider that figure. It also said the court erred in using Oct. 14, 2005 as the starting date from which to evaluate the penalty because it was six years before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) required it to make plant improvements.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Hittner disagreed, saying a previous ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals made it clear the penalty is based on non-compliance with the Clean Air Act, not the date Exxon entered an agreement with the TCEQ.

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