Environmental Justice


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Exxon flouted the law – Here is what Environment America is doing about it

Baytown, Texas sits between a bayou and the Gulf of Mexico, on the outskirts of Houston. It also sits under a haze of air pollution from an oil refinery.

The ExxonMobil oil refinery and chemical plant in Baytown is one of the largest — and most polluting — in the country. When we found it had released millions of pounds of illegal pollution into the air, we took Exxon to court. And we won.1

After 13 years of litigation, and many attempts by Exxon to shirk responsibility, a federal appeals court has ruled in our favor — for the third time.

This case began in 2010, when Environment Texas, one of our state groups, sued ExxonMobil for violating the Clean Air Act and putting the citizens of Baytown in harm’s way.

When the government fails to enforce laws like the Clean Air Act to protect our health and our environment, federal law empowers us to step in and get tough on polluters who are breaking the law. This particular lawsuit is a perfect example: Neither state nor federal regulators had put a stop to Exxon’s years of violations.

Exxon owes a record $14.25 million penalty for its illegal air pollution. This is the largest ever penalty in an environmental citizen enforcement suit. Those funds would be dedicated toward the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) clean air work.2,3

And yet, after repeated losses in court, Exxon still won’t pay up. But our willingness to take Exxon all the way to trial forced the company to clean up its act and dramatically reduce its illegal emissions, even while pursuing endless appeals.

This is welcome relief for the tens of thousands of people that live within three miles of the facility, who had to breathe Exxon’s pollution for decades. Exxon’s Baytown facility had more than 16,000 instances of clean air violations during the eight years covered by our lawsuit.4

Huge fiery flares at the facility cast an eerie yellow glow in the sky as they released pollution night after night. That air pollution included carcinogens, other toxic air pollutants, and respiratory irritants like sulfur dioxide and ozone-forming chemicals.5

One Baytown resident would hide his kids in a closet whenever these pollution releases happened, because they aggravated his two daughters’ health issues. His daughters had chronic nosebleeds and headaches that would get worse during extreme flaring events.

Sharon Sprayberry lived about a mile from the refinery and the massive flares kept her up at night, forcing her to turn off her air conditioning in the Texas heat for fear of pulling polluted air into her home. Sharon complained to the EPA, without avail.

Many residents report that they had trouble breathing in Baytown, but those symptoms abated when they left town. Some, including Sharon, were forced to move away from the polluting facility in search of cleaner air.

Not only did ExxonMobil’s facility threaten the health of the local community with toxic air pollution, the oil company profited off this pollution. It waited years before installing available pollution control measures, a delay that filled the Baytown community with dirty air while saving Exxon millions.6

Though our lawyers have demonstrated that Exxon has broken the law time and again, the company is still fighting to avoid responsibility.

Exxon has been fighting this case for nearly 13 years, refusing to take any responsibility for spewing millions of pounds of illegal pollution into Texas communities. But the law is on our side and we’ll keep fighting to hold them accountable.


Wendy Wendlandt

P.S. Our litigation project is just one way we’re holding polluters accountable. Our campaigns to clean up air pollution from industry, power plants and more are fueled by grassroots support. Donate today to stand up for clean air.

1. Luke Metzger, “Circuit Court rules against ExxonMobil a third time, upholds record Clean Air Act penalty,” Environment Texas, August 30, 2022.
2. Clark Mindock, “$14 million air pollution fine for Exxon’s Baytown refinery stands,” Reuters, August 30, 2022.
3. “42 U.S. Code § 7604(g)(1) – Citizen suits,” Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, last accessed October 7, 2022.
4. Luke Metzger, “Federal Court: Exxon Violated Clean Air Act Over 16,000 Times, Must Pay $19.95 Million Penalty,” Environment Texas, May 1, 2017.
5. Luke Metzger, “Federal Court: Exxon Violated Clean Air Act Over 16,000 Times, Must Pay $19.95 Million Penalty,” Environment Texas, May 1, 2017.
6. Luke Metzger, “Federal Court: Exxon Violated Clean Air Act Over 16,000 Times, Must Pay $19.95 Million Penalty,” Environment Texas, May 1, 2017.

Donate today. A cleaner, greener future is within our reach. Your donation today can help us bring the vision we share a little closer to reality.

Environment America, Inc.
1543 Wazee Street, Suite 410, Denver, CO 80202, (303) 801-0581
Federal Advocacy Office: 600 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20003, (202) 683-1250
Member Questions or Requests: 1-800-401-6511.
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