(New Orleans) A Motion for Summary Judgment* in the ongoing suit against the troubled ExxonMobil Chalmette Refining was filed yesterday in federal court at 4:59 PM on behalf of the St. Bernard Citizens for Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Student attorneys from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic filed the motion. "We need relief from these obnoxious odors," said Kenneth Ford, President of the St. Bernard citizens group. "We want the Clean Air Act enforced. We want children in St. Bernard Parish protected from pollution."
The request for summary judgment details 2,622 violations and highlights ExxonMobil's own reports to the state Department of Environmental Quality in which the refinery admits violating the law and its permits. The plaintiffs won a summary judgment motion in a ruling by Judge Sarah Vance on February 3, 2005, in which she ruled that the ExxonMobil refinery violated the Clean Air Act on 34 separate occasions.
The motion states that "specifically, Chalmette Refining is liable for (1) exceeding benzene limits on tank emissions at least 1,273 times since 2003, (2) exceeding sulfur dioxide limits on flares at least 530 times since 2002, and (3) violating "new source performance standards" for flares at least 820 times since 1999." (pp. 1 -2) "This motion includes violations that we determined were clearly established in the public records," said Clay Garside, the student attorney arguing the case.
If found guilty of the violations, the refinery could be liable for fines of $32,500 per violation per day, totaling in the tens of millions of dollars. "ExxonMobil made $25.3 billion in profit in 2004," said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. "It's a mystery why a refinery that can afford to clean up its act would risk enormous fines as a renegade refinery operating outside of the law."
The claims in the motion have serious ramifications for health in the parish, as benzene - a known carcinogen and contributor to various blood diseases - is one of the chemicals being released. ExxonMobil has three tanks permitted to emit a total of 17.04 pounds of benzene collectively per day. Instead, the tanks emit 67.7 pounds collectively per day, exceeding the permits by more than three times over.
In an additional violation, the refinery is permitted to emit 102.24 pounds per day of sulfur dioxide - a known respiratory irritant - from its flares. Instead, the refinery emits up to 25,862 pounds of sulfur dioxide, over 252 times the permitted amount. According to the motion:
"Chalmette Refining is aware that it operates in violation of its air permit limitations. Indeed, Chalmette Refining certified to LDEQ that the continuous releases of benzene and SO2 exceed the daily permitted emissions imposed pursuant to its Clean Air Act permit.
Chalmette Refining has admitted that its ongoing violations are not related to any upsets or emergency conditions, yet it continues to operate without regard to the rule of law or federally enforceable permit conditions. Chalmette Refining has also admitted that it has not taken any response or mitigation steps." (p. 2)
The plaintiffs have asked for injunctive relief, requesting that the refinery immediately clean up the illegal operations or halt the activities until they can be performed legally.
The case continues to be watched by refinery communities nationwide. "This is a bellwether case," said Denny Larson of the Refinery Reform Campaign. "Refinery neighbors all across the country are watching this so they can file similar lawsuits and protect their health."
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* A summary judgment is a legal decision in a case made when one party to a lawsuit requests summary judgment by pre-trial motion. The idea behind summary judgment is that if a fact is undisputed then there is no need for a trial on that issue. In this case, ExxonMobil has admitted in its own written reports that it has violated the law; plaintiffs believe this admission to be ample grounds for summary judgment.