Exxon Mobil is failing to safeguard Massachusetts communities against pollution relating to climate change impacts, the suit says. It follows up on revelations that the oil giant covered up climate risks of fossil fuels.
The Conservation Law Foundation has sued Exxon Mobil Corp. in the United States District Court of Boston, filing what it described as the first-ever US legal action aimed at holding the oil giant accountable for its climate change cover-up.
The Conservation Law Foundation's 70-page lawsuit says Exxon Mobil is endangering communities by ignoring the threat posed by severe weather events and rising sea levels to its Everett facility along the Mystic River in Massachusetts - despite its long-held knowledge of the risks associated with climate change.
The suit follows revelations last year that Exxon executives were aware of the climate risks associated with fossil fuels as early as 1977, but funded research to cover up those findings.
Exxon Mobil has denied the claims, and said in a statement it would fight the lawsuit in court. Earlier this year, the company also said it had passed recent pollution prevention inspections carried out by federal and state agencies.
For more, DW spoke to Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.
Deutsche Welle: Your organization is suing Exxon Mobil. How did the lawsuit come about?
Brad Campbell: Exxon Mobil put these communities near their Everett facility at risk. This is a large, massive tank farm that's nestled right amongst densely populated, primarily low-income and minority communities that would be devastated if a storm were to inundate this facility.
Campbell says the Everett facility won't withstand storms like Hurricane Katrina, which caused extensive damage
They have essentially engaged in climate deceit, where their scientists for years recognized that climate change was coming and could be potentially catastrophic. And yet at facilities in the heart of communities, they've done nothing to prepare. They were essentially paying hundreds of millions of dollars to tell the public that climate change isn't real, that the science is not settled.
What makes the Everett terminal so vulnerable to climate change?
They unload from the water, so it's right on the waterway. It's at an elevation that makes it very vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge. This facility's treatment system for oil and potent carcinogens is simply overwhelmed by those conditions, so in our view the fundamental obligation that Exxon Mobil has to communities is to ensure that there's no risk to the families and businesses that have been a neighbor to this facility for years.
That's a responsibility embedded in US law - that facilities like this one have to do all they can to avoid an accidental release of oil and hazardous substances.
How is this facility affecting the community?
It routinely releases oil and hazardous substances including potent carcinogens into the Mystic River, that is essentially part of a number of local communities. These are not trivial violations. These are hundreds and thousands of times more than their permitted levels.
A worker uses oil absorbent materials to clean up an Exxon Mobil spill in the Yellowstone River in 2011
What kind of action would you like Exxon Mobil to take?
This facility consists of a series of massive storage tanks containing oil and other petrochemicals right in the middle of a community - near homes, schools and small businesses. What we want is for Exxon to harden this facility, so that when storm events or heavy rains occur, they are not releasing toxins and putting the community at risk.
If you take the sum total of facilities that this company and other major oil companies have, that's an enormous price tag in terms of what we have to do to adapt to climate change. But it is absolutely an obligation that Exxon Mobil has under the law.
Exxon Mobil denies that it knew about climate change's adverse effects and tried to hide it. What evidence is there to show that the company knew?
There have been a series of investigations, including ours, in which Exxon Mobil's internal documents show that they had arrived at very firm conclusions about climate change and climate science during the very time they were spending hundreds of millions on surrogates to try to discredit climate science.
That deceit has real human impacts when you turn to a community like the one in Everett, because that community expects Exxon to make its facility prepared for potential risks.
Exxon paid millions for environmental damages caused by a pipeline break that spilled oil into Montana's Yellowstone River
Your trial team includes attorney Allan Kanner, whose firm represented plaintiffs in BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. How confident are you about winning the case?
We're very confident that the law requires facilities like this one to prepare for the risks they know about. We're very confident that we can show with ample evidence that Exxon knew about about the risks that this facility faces and not only ignored them, but continued to violate their very minimum permit requirements.
So this is a case that will be a precedent - but it falls squarely within the settled law under the Clean Water Act here in the US.
If you win, what message will that give to oil giants around the world?
I think this case should send a clear signal that there are enormous consequences and potential liability if they fail to take climate change into account when they're operating, designing or building facilities.
They now have an opportunity to do the right thing. Exxon Mobil should be getting this facility and its other facilities that sit in the heart of communities to a point where they're safe and ready for the climate conditions that we know lie ahead.
Brad Campbell is the president of the Conservation Law Foundation. He previously worked as the Regional Administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency and as a commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Interview: Charlotta Lomas / nm