ExxonMobil found guilty of violating Clean Air Act: Judge’s ruling finds repeated violations

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(New Orleans) In a resounding vindication of Chalmette citizens’ longstanding complaints about ExxonMobil’s toxic air pollution, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Vance ruled in favor of the citizens, ruling that refinery operations violate the Clean Air Act. “We are so happy – delighted really – to think that justice is being done,” said Ken Ford of the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality.

The court’s ruling not only found that ExxonMobil has violated the Clean Air act but also that ExxonMobil is likely to continue doing so. According to the Judge’s Opinion, “the documented violations indicate, that Chalmette repeatedly violates the Clean Air Act and that, unless some action is taken to prevent the illegal conduct, there is a real threat that such violations will continue to occur.” 

Mr. Ford and his neighbors have long been especially concerned about the pollution’s effect on the children who attend the elementary school just across the street from the embattled refinery. “Relief is what I feel,” said Mr. Lewis, a member of the Citizens for Environmental Quality. “I am relieved that after years of fighting this pollution we are finally going to see some change.”

The Court’s emphasis on the potential for ongoing violations corroborates community members’ experiences, as foul chemical odors continue to dominate their neighborhood. 

The Court’s ruling is a landmark one for the citizens as it demonstrates – for the first time ever - that ExxonMobil is liable for the harm it creates via toxic emissions. The ruling is in response to a motion for summary judgment filed by the citizen groups’ lawyers, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. Andre Shiromani prepared the liability motion last May when he was a third-year law student at Tulane Law School.  Mr. Shiromani is now an attorney with the Tallahassee, Florida office of Earthjustice.  Clay Garside, currently a third-year Tulane law student, argued the citizens’ case on January 19, 2005.

The citizens’ motion detailed 34 instances in which the refinery reported flaring toxic chemicals to the air. The crucial aspect of these incidents is that ExxonMobil itself reported that these emissions could have been prevented. Repeated preventable flaring incidents violate the Clean Air Act. An ExxonMobil report to the state Department of Environmental Quality detailed an ongoing preventable flaring incident as recently as December 16, 2004, less than two months ago.

The flaring incidents are a concern to the community because of the health risks involved. Cancer and respiratory problems are among the serious health problems posed by the chemicals that ExxonMobil emits. 

The community groups are repeating their calls for air monitors as the only way to hold ExxonMobil accountable for its pollution in the future. “It is time for ExxonMobil to stop making excuses,” said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “Refinery officials need to sit down with us and make a plan to install the real time air monitors that we have been advocating for over a year.” 

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. “Flaring is a problem around over the country, and this decision puts violating companies on notice.” 

ExxonMobil did not dispute that it violates the Clean Air Act but argued that Chalmette residents had no legal standing to sue because the refinery is not the only source of pollution in the community.  The Judge’s ruling rejected ExxonMobil’s argument and verified the group’s standing in the suit. ExxonMobil operates the Chalmette Refinery, which is a 50-50 joint venture between ExxonMobil and Petroleos de Venezuela. 

Judge Vance issued her ruling on Friday, February 4th, in the midst of the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. The community groups are the first to release the ruling to the media. 

Copies of opinion will be available at this morning’s press conference.

Where: Near Rowley Elementary School; enter at 12 Carroll Drive, off of St. Bernard Highway

When: 11 AM CST, Wednesday, February, 2005

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