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Arkansas Spill Pollution Case Against Exxon Can Proceed, Court Says

Potentially potent lawsuit claiming Exxon violated pollution laws after its 2013 Mayflower oil pipeline spill survives dismissal attempts.

Jun 30, 2014

Federal and state attorneys who sued ExxonMobil Corp. over its Arkansas pipeline spill have won court rulings to keep the lawsuit alive and to deny the company's attempt to limit the information it must provide in the case.

The rulings, which came earlier this month, represent a critical step forward for a case that has moved slowly since it was filed a year ago. The lawsuit, filed June 13, 2013 in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, Ark., accuses Exxon of violating federal and state air and water pollution laws as well as Arkansas' hazardous waste regulations.

U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker on June 9 rejected Exxon's request to have the lawsuit dismissed, concluding that the governments had sufficient grounds to proceed with the case. In a separate ruling, she ordered the oil company to provide opposing attorneys with overdue documents and other requested information by July 10. Baker also said that Exxon must disclose its current estimate for how much oil was spilled, and must comply with requests for information about the entire length of the 858-mile Pegasus pipeline, not just a portion of it.

"We are currently in the discovery phase of the lawsuit as we move toward a trial date that we expect to be set in the second half of 2015," said Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, in an e-mailed statement. With the court's rulings, he added, "We can proceed with the litigation."

The jointly-filed government case seeks civil penalties that could dwarf the $2.66 million proposed fine from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. PHMSA, the nation's pipeline regulator, proposed the penalty for Exxon after a post-spill investigation found "probable violations" of federal pipeline regulations. Exxon has challenged the PHMSA fine.

The federal lawsuit in Arkansas and PHMSA's regulatory case  are just a few of the legal entanglements that have occupied Exxon since March 2013, when the company's Pegasus oil pipeline burst open in Mayflower, Ark. The 1940s-era pipeline ruptured and sent an estimated 210,000 gallons of Canadian diluted bitumen into a nearby neighborhood and cove. Since then, Exxon has spent $75.1 million on spill-related expenses, including the purchase of more than 20 affected homes, according to spokesman Aaron Stryk.

So far, the federal-state lawsuit appears to be the most potentially potent legal case against Exxon. But it's been a plodding process so far.

Last August Exxon filed to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing, among other things, that the federal Clean Water Act, which it was accused of violating, only applied to "navigable waters" traversed by ships and that the cove it fouled in Arkansas didn't qualify. The company also argued that the government claims weren’t specific enough and credible enough to warrant litigation.   

Several months later, government attorneys sent Exxon their first request for relevant documents and information. Four months after their request, in March 2014, the attorneys sought the court's intervention to compel the oil company to provide the requested material.

In their filing, federal and state attorneys told the court that Exxon provided "only a fraction of the documents" they requested, even after they extended the deadline by one month. The attorneys said that Exxon proposed to provide batches of additional information "every three weeks on Fridays"—a timetable that could extend the discovery process to September, leaving little time for review and verification before the case moves to the next phase, according to the filing.

The governments also said Exxon refused to provide documents or other information for the entire Pegasus pipeline, which stretches from Patoka, Ill. to Nederland, Texas.

"[Exxon attorneys,] without adequate justification have resisted or refused to produce documents in a timely manner, and have unilaterally limited their responses to the United States," the government said in seeking the court's intervention.

In its response to the attorneys' complaints, Exxon said it needs extra time to comply with the information requests because the Pegasus spill has given rise to 16 lawsuits and it is responding to nearly 400 requests for information for those cases simultaneously. The company also noted that it took the two sides until March to agree on confidentiality protections for certain Exxon material.

The case is now officially set for trial in February 2015, but the Arkansas spokesman said he expects the trial to slip by several months. The trial was initially set for October 2013.

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