Exxon’s complex in Baytown, 25 miles east of Houston, sprawls on 3,000 acres along the Houston Ship Channel.
Exxon employs 7,000 people at the complex: a forbidding collection of metal and steam, 10,000 miles of tightly packed pipe, winding among large domed storage tanks and towers that intermittently spew flames that burn off emissions from the refining process.
It has the capacity to refine 550,000 barrels of crude oil per day and produce 13 billion pounds of petrochemicals, according to the case record.
The $19.9 million penalty ordered by U.S. District Judge David Hittner resolves a Clean Air Act citizen’s suit the Sierra Club and Environment Texas Citizen Lobby filed in 2010.
Exxon released 10 million pounds of illegal air pollution from the plant from 2005 to 2013, according to the case record.
The Clean Air Act allows people to sue companies for violating emission limits on air pollutants. Exxon said it’s considering appealing the order, but if it stands Exxon must pay full penalty to the Treasury Department.
The environmental groups established standing through the testimony of their members who lived near the complex and said they often smelled chemicals and saw flares and smoke and brown haze over the plant.
One woman said her breathing problems went away after she moved from her home a mile from the complex to a city in central Texas.
Hittner’s 101-page ruling is an about-face from his December 2014 order in which he held that the environmentalists had not provided enough evidence to prove their claims.
But the Fifth Circuit last year found that Hittner had miscalculated Exxon’s violations, vacated his 2014 ruling and remanded.
Environment Texas director Luke Metzger praised the ruling and the Clean Air Act for giving people a way to fight polluters in court.
“This ruling shows how crucial the citizen enforcement provision of the Clean Air Act really is for Texas residents. It means that private citizens victimized by the world’s biggest polluters can get justice in the American court system, even when government regulators look the other way,” Metzger said in a statement.
Exxon also suffered a setback last week when the federal government refused to give it a waiver of U.S. sanctions against Russia to drill for oil in the Black Sea.
But the Irving, Texas-based company is still one of the most profitable in the world. It reported profits of $7.8 billion in 2016, down from $41 billion in 2012 and $44 billion in 2013.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon CEO from 2006 until January this year, during which time he developed a cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, signing a lucrative deal with Russia in 2011 to drill for oil in the Arctic Circle.
He overcame concerns in Congress about Putin’s influence over him and the Senate confirmed him as President Donald Trump’s secretary of state in February.
Because of the length of the ruling, it was posted in five parts.