The U.S. Department of Justice, along with Arkansas, filed a joint lawsuit that could give ExxonMobil a slight slap on the wrist for the March pipeline spill of about 5,000 barrels of heavy Canadian crude oil in the Mayflower residential neighborhood.
The June 13 U.S. District Court filing in Little Rock, AR seeks civil penalties and damages at the federal and state levels for ExxonMobil’s “unlawful discharge of heavy crude oil from a 20-inch-diameter interstate pipeline – the Pegasus Pipeline – that ruptured in Mayflower on March 29.”
The segment of the Pegasus Pipeline that ruptured was buried about two feet below the ground and the oil spilled directly into the neighborhood, contaminating 22 homes, and then into nearby waterways, including a creek, wetlands, and Lake Conway. Residents were forced to evacuate their homes due to the hazardous conditions in the neighborhood. “The oil has contaminated land and waterways and impacted human health and welfare, wildlife, and habitat,” DOJ says. Cleanup efforts continue, and many residents still have not been able to return home.
The Pegasus Pipeline, originally built in the 1940s, runs approximately 850 miles from Patoka, IL, to Nederland, TX.
The complaint alleges six causes of action against ExxonMobil. The United States, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seeks civil penalties and injunctive relief under the federal Clean Water Act for the oil spill. The state of Arkansas, on behalf of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), seeks civil penalties for violations of the Arkansas Hazardous Waste Management Act and the Arkansas Water and Air Pollution Control Act. The state is also seeking a declaratory judgment on ExxonMobil’s liability for payment of removal costs and damages related to the spill pursuant to the federal Oil Pollution Act.
ExxonMobil could face civil penalties of up to $1,100 per barrel under the Clean Water Act, or as much as $4,300 per barrel if negligence or willful misconduct is found. In addition, other penalties under various provisions of the federal and state laws involved could go as high as $25,000 per day, per violation, along with other counts that each carry up to $10,000 per day, per violation.
The penalties facing the company could mount up quickly to—wow!—the tens of millions of dollars. As Steve Coll notes in Private Empire, ExxonMobil is the most powerful private corporation in the United States, with annual revenues that are larger than the economic activity of many countries.
So while this is yet another instance of the riskiness inherent in the fossil fuel industry and the sketchy conditions of the nation’s public and private infrastructure (a story for another day), the penalties that ExxonMobil could have to pay can probably easily be collected from behind the cushions in the executive lounge or the tip jar in the executive washroom. Let’s hear it for environmental justice.
[Image: Arkansas Tar Sands Oil Spill by NWFblogs via Flickr CC]