Harris County sues ExxonMobil after fire at Baytown plant extinguished

By Aaron Barker - Senior Digital Editor, Rose-Ann Aragon - Reporter, Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli - Digital News Editor, Cory McCord - Digital News Editor

BAYTOWN, Texas - Harris County officials have filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil after Wednesday's fire at the company’s Baytown plant.

According to the lawsuit that was filed Thursday, county leaders accuse the oil producer of violating the Texas Clean Air Act during the distillation tower fire that injured 37 people.

“The fire resulted in the emission of multiple air pollutants, including propylene, LPG (liquefied petroleum gas), propane and associated products of combustion,” the lawsuit read.

DOCUMENT: Harris County lawsuit against ExxonMobil

Rock Owens, managing attorney of the Environmental Protection Division at the Harris County Attorney's Office, said the lawsuit is standard practice in a case such as this.

"When they violate these permits and they violate the people’s space of around there and impact our lives, they need to be held accountable," Owens said. "We will be filing an enforcement action, which is a very traditional kind of lawsuit. I think the new Commissioner’s Court of Harris County has made it very clear that they want vigorous enforcement of the law, especially environmental laws, in Harris County."

The lawsuit asks for injunctions that require ExxonMobil to comply with not only the state's Clean Air Act but also the Texas Water Code.

In a written statement released by the company Thursday morning, officials said they have invested heavily to reduce emissions at the plant.

"Since 2005, ExxonMobil has spent nearly $1 billion on the Baytown complex to improve environmental performance," company officials said. "We have reduced total emissions by more than 29 percent and improved our air incident performance, including those that contribute to hydrocarbon flaring, by 76 percent."

The fire was extinguished Thursday morning, according to the company.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Previous violations

The ExxonMobil plant in Baytown is one of the largest of its kind in the world and it is no stranger to violations.

KPRC 2 did some digging and found that, two years ago, this complex was fined millions for more than 16,000 days of air quality violations. This plant specifically had air quality fines in 2015, 2017 and 2019. 

Fire in March

On March 16, a hydrofining unit caught fire at the ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, which is a different location than the site of Wednesday's fire. The March fire burned for more than three hours before emergency crews were able to put it out.

READ: Harris County sues ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown over March fire

The Harris County Pollution Control Services Department determined the fire started as a result of a tube leak.

The Harris County Attorney's Office filed a lawsuit against the company for the fire.

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