Harris County sues ExxonMobil over March fire

Little League players practice at a field off Bayway Drive on March 16 as smoke billows from a fire at the ExxonMobil refinery.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for a plant fire that occurred just one day before the major petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company facility in Deer Park. 

The Hydrofining Unit, which produces motor gasoline, caught fire at the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery in mid-March and burned for over three hours before the plant’s fire teams were able to extinguish the blaze. 

By filing the lawsuit, the Harris County Attorney’s Office environmental division said it hopes the lawsuit will improve the company’s procedures to avoid another such fire. 

“The county attorney is asking that the company agree to an order compelling the use of an independent expert to examine the cause of the release and flash fire and to make recommendations that can be incorporated into the company’s practices and procedures in order to eliminate the corrosion problem we believe caused the initial leak,” Rock Owens said, Harris County’s chief environmental prosecutor. “A mere settlement agreement will not accomplish this. The only way to ensure it happens is with a court order.”

According to court documents, the Harris County Pollution Control Services Department conducted an emissions investigation on April 4 and found the root cause of the fire to be a tube leak inside the Hydrofining Unit. The investigation also found that the fire resulted in the emission of multiple air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and benzene, according to court documents. 

On April 11 Harris County issued ExxonMobil a notice for violations of several Clean Air Act provisions. 

In a statement provided by ExxonMobil, the company says it plans to challenge the lawsuit’s allegations. 

“The furnace fire that occurred on March 16 was safely extinguished by ExxonMobil’s fire fighters,” the statement read. “Air monitoring was performed throughout the event, and all available information indicates that there was no off-site impact. ExxonMobil complied with all environmental reporting requirements and cooperated with all regulatory agencies throughout the event.”

ExxonMobil added that it is an industry leader in safe, reliable and environmentally responsible operations, and continuously optimizes its processes to minimize emissions and maintain the highest standards for environmental care.

The fire happened one day before a major petrochemical fire at the ITC facility in Deer Park, which spread to eight tanks. 

At the time of ExxonMobil’s fire, Reuters reported that ExxonMobil cut back its gasoline production at the plant as a result of the fire. It was reported that the plant produces 560,500 barrels per day. 

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