(Baton Rouge, LA) Chalmette’s ExxonMobil was again slammed with a guilty verdict as the refinery’s closest neighbors – long time victims of the refinery’s pollution - were vindicated in Court by U. S. District Court Judge Sarah Vance. "Plantiffs have demonstrated that theses admitted-to amounts of benzene emissions regularly exceeded defendant’s annual and hourly permit limits for all three tanks and, therefore, resulted in numerous violations of defendant’s permits," wrote Judge Vance in her decision.
The court found that leaking seals on three tanks storing benzene – a known carcinogen – exceeded the legally permitted emission limits. The leaks on one of the tanks exceeded the annual permit by more than six times. “We filed this law suit because we are concerned about our health,” said Ken Ford of the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality. “So many people in our neighborhood have had cancer.” EPA considers benzene to be a Class A carcinogen.
In its statements to the court, ExxonMobil admitted the violations but blamed mathematical miscalculations. The judge resoundingly rejected this excuse. In addition to the leaking benzene, ExxonMobil is also liable for illegal sulfur dioxide emissions and misuse of their flares.
The decision is especially powerful amid Congress’ attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “The decision has come at a time when Louisiana citizens can use some good news regarding environmental protection, especially news that reinforces their role in aiding enforcement,” said Corrine van Dalen, the groups’ attorney from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “The refinery must be accountable for repeatedly dumping illegal amounts of harmful pollutants into the air people breathe.”
The ruling is a sharp rebuke to the Department of Environmental Quality’s practice of excusing violations by retroactively raising permit limits. The agency was also defeated in the court decision, since it had submitted a brief supportive of ExxonMobil in early July of this year. “Arguments about the substantive content of the permit should be submitted to the agency when the permit is issued or in a request for a modification, and they are not appropriate defenses in an enforcement action.”
“The Department of Environmental Quality should be ashamed,” said Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “Not only have they failed to protect the community, but they have actively worked against us to prevent environmental and public health protection. Thank God for the courts.”
The refinery is liable for penalties of up to $32,500 per violation per day. An injunction on the refinery’s operation of the benzene tanks is also a possibility.
The case is also important for the implications at refineries around the country. “This is a bell-weather case,” said Denny Larson of the national Refinery Reform Campaign. “As Congress tries to gut citizen enforcement provisions, this case shows how essential such protection is.”
The decision was made public by the court on Friday, October 14th. Logistical difficulties caused by Hurricane Katrina delayed the plantiffs’ receipt of the decision until early this week.
Copies of opinion will be available at www.labucketbrigade.org