Judge Rules Exxon Must Face Negligence Lawsuit Over 210,000-Gallon Oil Spill

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"Judge Rules Exxon Must Face Negligence Lawsuit Over 210,000-Gallon Oil Spill"

Oil accumulates in a creek in Mayflower, Arkansas, after an ExxonMobil pipeline rupture.

Oil accumulates in a creek in Mayflower, Arkansas, after an ExxonMobil pipeline rupture.

CREDIT: Greenpeace USA Flickr

An Arkansas federal judge on Monday refused to let ExxonMobil off the hook from a lawsuit claiming the company violated federal and state clean water laws when its Pegasus Pipeline ruptured in March 2013, spilling approximately 210,000 gallons of Canadian tar sands crude oil into the small community of Mayflower.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker denied the company’s motion to dismiss, saying the lawsuit offered sufficient proof that ExxonMobil may have committed two violations of the Clean Water Act, two violations of Arkansas’ air and water regulations, and one hazardous materials violation. The lawsuit, brought by both the federal and Arkansas governments, says ExxonMobil should pay up to $4,300 per barrel of oil released — a maximum of $21.5 million — and up to $45,000 per day in civil penalties for violations since the spill.

Residents of Mayflower have struggled to cope with the impacts of the now-infamous spill, which saw thick, gooey tar sands oil running onto a residential street, forcing the evacuation of 22 homes. Many residents have reported suffering from dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting — classic symptoms of short-term exposure to the chemicals found in crude oil — up to five months after it occurred. The lingering stench was apparently so bad that Exxon offered to buy out 62 homes in the area. The company even had to tear down a few houses and bought 20 more from affected residents. On the one year anniversary, residents said they were still attempting to regain a sense of normalcy.

The state and federal governments’ lawsuit claims ExxonMobil may have engaged in gross negligence or willful misconduct in the events leading up to the spill — a claim that, if proven, could result in the maximum fines. However, Baker noted that the negligence claims won’t be considered until trial.

What was considered in Bakers’ Monday ruling was whether the lawsuit stated a valid claim against ExxonMobil for polluting the cove of Lake Conway, an unnamed creek, and wetlands surrounding the spill site. Sheens of the oil — the same type that would be transported in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — persisted in some bodies of water for months after the spill, causing concern about potential harm to freshwater ecosystems.

ExxonMobil’s main argument against the lawsuit was that the Clean Water Act only prohibits oil spills in “navigable waters” of the United States — ie, waters that can be traversed by a ship. The cove of Lake Conway, the unnamed creek, and the wetlands affected by the spill are not “navigable” by ships, ExxonMobil said, and therefore not subject to the law.

Judge Baker rejected that argument, noting that the Clean Water Act defines “navigable waters” as, simply, “the waters of the United States.”

“‘[A]ny other reading would violate the specific language of the definition . . . and turn a great legislative enactment into a meaningless jumble of words,'” Baker wrote, quoting a 1974 ruling from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

ExxonMobil also argued that there was no way to prove that tar sands oil should be considered “hazardous waste” under Arkansas law. The company said the lawsuit contained no proof that the spilled oil would “cause or contribute to an increase in mortality or illness” or that it “poses a substantial hazard to human health or the environment.” Judge Baker rejected that argument as well.

“The court … finds that defendants are on notice that, if proven, they may be liable for all the water pollution violations alleged in the complaint,” Baker wrote.

If ExxonMobil was found liable for the lawsuit’s alleged violations, it wouldn’t be the first time the company had to pay for the spill. In November, federal pipeline safety regulators announced a proposed $2.6 million fine for violating pipeline safety regulations and failing to notify the agency that the Pegasus Pipeline, built before 1970, was susceptible to rupture.

It may seem like a large amount, but the proposed fine is a drop in the bucket for the company, which earned $9.1 billion in the first quarter of 2014 alone.

Read Judge Baker’s full ruling here.

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