WASHINGTON, DC, March 6, 2019 (ENS) – The U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency have settled with ExxonMobil Oil Corporation to resolve federal Clean Air Act claims arising from a 2013 fire at the company’s oil refinery in Beaumont, Texas that killed two employees and injured 10 others.
In a complaint filed today with the settlement, the United States alleges that the company violated Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act, which requires measures to prevent accidental releases of extremely hazardous substances that can have serious public health and environmental consequences.
“We rely on companies to carefully follow environmental regulations, which are designed, above all, to protect human health,” said EPA Regional Administrator Anne Idsal. “As the incident at ExxonMobil’s facility shows, failing to comply with these rules can have devastating consequences.”
The April 17, 2013 fire at the refinery erupted from a heat exchanger that contract workers were maintaining during a turnaround of one of the 365,000-barrel-per-day refinery’s units. Workers used a torch to remove bolts from the top, or head, of the heat exchanger. The torch ignited hydrocarbons released from the head.
EPA’s inspection following the incident disclosed violations of Section 112(r) and of the regulations known as the Chemical Accident Prevention provisions.
“The deaths and injuries resulting from the 2013 fire at ExxonMobil’s Beaumont refinery are a terrible tragedy,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“Today’s settlement sends a clear message to companies handling hazardous substances in their operations that they must take the necessary steps to protect their workers under the environmental laws or face the consequences of vigorous enforcement,” said Clark. “Additionally, the relief the United States has secured will aid in protecting a vulnerable surrounding community from future tragic episodes like this one.”
Under the consent decree, ExxonMobil will pay a $616,000 civil penalty, hire an independent third party auditor to conduct a compliance audit of ExxonMobil’s procedures for opening process equipment at 10 different process units at the refinery, and perform a supplemental environmental project under EPA’s SEP Policy to purchase a hazardous materials Incident Command Vehicle, valued at $730,000, for the Beaumont Fire & Rescue Service, BFRS.
The auditor will also evaluate the company’s procedures for conducting risk-based mechanical integrity inspections.
The Incident Command Vehicle will contain equipment tailored to enhance the Beaumont Fire & Rescue Service’s hazardous-material incident response capabilities, including its 24-hour emergency response services from 12 fire stations.
From these stations, BFRS provides fire, hazardous materials, disaster, technical rescue, and first responder emergency medical services over 90 square miles containing numerous petroleum and/or chemical facilities. The ICV will enhance BFRS’s capability to communicate and coordinate emergency response activities in the event of a fire, explosion or similar major incident.
“When companies shortcut the safety requirements that have been put in place, especially in high risk situations like this, people can die,” said U.S. Attorney Joseph Brown of the Eastern District of Texas.
“It is important that companies understand that there is not only liability in private civil suits, but administrative fines to pay,” said Brown. “We cannot put a price on the lives lost, but we hope to deter these kinds of violations to save lives in the future.”
In May 2016, ExxonMobil settled negligence lawsuits filed by family members of the two workers who were killed and six others who were injured in the April 2013 explosion and fire at the company’s Beaumont refinery.
A Jefferson County district judge signed the settlement agreement, one day before a contract worker was killed at the refinery while doing maintenance work.
Terms of the settlement were not disclosed and ExxonMobil declined to comment. The suit sought at least $1 million in damages.
Built in 1903 along the banks of the Neches River, about 90 miles northeast of Houston, ExxonMobil’s Beaumont refining facilities have grown into an integrated petrochemical complex.
The refinery processes 366,000 barrels of crude oil per day and produces 2.8 billion gallons of gasoline annually. The Beaumont chemical plant produces building-block chemicals such as ethylene and propylene. The Beaumont lubricant blending and packaging plant manufactures lube oil, greases, including those used in the wind turbine industry, and is the only manufacturer of Mobil aviation greases.
ExxonMobil plans to spend more than $20 billion over 10 years to build and expand manufacturing facilities on the U.S. Gulf Coast and some of that expansion is already underway in Beaumont, including the construction of a new production unit at the polyethylene plant and a new desulfurization unit at the Beaumont refinery.
In January 2019, ExxonMobil announced plans for an expansion of the facility to increase light crude refining capacity by more than 65 percent, or 250,000 barrels per day. Startup is expected by 2022.
ExxonMobil said in a September 2018 statement about the Beaumont Refinery, “We have reduced overall emissions by approximately 70 percent since 2002, and we have invested more than $1 billion dollars in environmental performance measures over the last 15 years.”
The proposed consent decree was lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. Information about submitting a public comment is available at: https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.