Is your company in danger of paying for Clean Air Act violations?

A resounding decision recently handed down in a Houston federal district court has some corporations concerned that Clean Air Act violations could equate to large penalties – for the violations themselves and possible legal costs associated with them. U.S. District Judge David Hittner, Southern District of Texas, ruled that Irving-based ExxonMobil profited by delaying the implementation of pollution control measures at its refinery and chemical plant in Baytown, Texas, and ordered the company to pay fees to the tune of $19.95 million.

Hittner’s decision was in response to a civil lawsuit brought against ExxonMobil by plaintiffs Environment Texas and Sierra Club, who alleged the company violated its state-issued, federally mandated operating permits by releasing 10 million pounds of pollution over the course of 16,386 days between 2005 and 2013 as opposed to implementing pollution control measures required by the Clean Air Act. ExxonMobil officials said they disagree with the ruling and are considering legal options, including an appeal. They stated that the company’s compliance history and good faith efforts weigh against imposition of a penalty.

What does this mean for other companies responsible for industrial operations and the associated pollution-reduction measures mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve ozone levels in Texas metroplexes? As this decision and precedent prove, companies should be on guard against the significant financial penalties involved with Clean Air Act violations.

The environmental plaintiffs have also successfully pursued legal action against Shell Oil Company and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company for Clean Air Act violations. They can pursue these lawsuits due to an enforcement mechanism Congress included in the Clean Air Act and other federal environmental laws. According to a statement released by the plaintiffs after the ExxonMobil decision, it may not be their last.

“Today’s decision sends a resounding message that it will not pay to pollute Texas. Compliance with air pollution laws and operating permits is mandatory, not optional, and we will not stand idly by when polluters put our health and safety at risk.”
Dr. Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter
(http://environmenttexas.org/news/txe/federal-court-exxon-violated-clean-air-act-over-16000-times-must-pay-1995-million-penalty (April 26, 2017)

The EPA’s Next Generation (NextGen) Enforcement initiative is their attempt to “increase compliance” with environmental regulations using technological advances including information technology. As stated from the EPA Assistant Administrator, Cynthia Giles, EPA’s NextGen tools include, “public accountability through increased transparency of compliance data.” This increased transparency of compliance data, “allows the public, impacted community members, neighboring facilities, and other agencies to play a role in assessing compliance.” As we see a change in the EPA, we should also expect to see a continuing change in how compliance is enforced. As the public has access to more and more data, civil, third-party lawsuits will be easier for plaintiffs to file, and we’ll see more and more enforcement from the public.

The team at EDGE has the expertise and experience to help you successfully navigate the complex landscape of environmental regulations and offer several Clean Air Act services, such as pollution prevention and control technology evaluations, emissions estimates and emissions inventory reporting, and federal (PSD/NAAQS) and state toxics dispersion modeling impact analyses, among others. We can answer your questions and advise you in your quest to maintain compliance and operate effectively within the state’s Clean Air Act implementation plan (SIP).