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Texas Sues Exxon Mobil After Fire At Houston-Area Refinery

Martin do Nascimento

Texas is suing Exxon Mobil for alleged environmental violations following a fire that broke out last week at one of the company's Houston-area plants.

The July 31 blaze at the Baytown Olefins Plant injured 37 people. It also produced a black cloud of smoke that could be seen for miles, prompting Baytown city officials to issue a temporary shelter-in-place order due to concerns over air pollution. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the lawsuit this week on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. It alleges the fire led to violations of the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Water Code due to "unauthorized discharges of firefighting water."

Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said he welcomes Paxton's efforts to enforce environmental regulations, but is wary of how tough the state will actually be. 

"Given the state of Texas' track record where only about 3% of violations get fined, fines end up being 2 cents per pound of pollution," he said. "We're worried that we'll see another slap on the wrist that doesn't actually hold companies accountable." 

Harris Countyand two workers who suffered second- and third- degree burns in the fire, have already sued Exxon Mobil. Metzger points out that when the state gets involved in a lawsuit, it puts limits on what other parties can do. 

Metzger said the danger is that nonprofits like Environment Texas and county governments with strong track records on enforcement get shut out of the process.

"We're wholly dependent on the attorney general for action," he said. Therefore, it's "critical that environmental groups, the public, the press, watch very carefully how these lawsuits progress." 

Paxton filed the state's lawsuit in Travis County. As the Houston Chronicle reports, Exxon Mobil will likely try to get all the lawsuits consolidated there – outside of Harris County where the fire actually happened. 

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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