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Environmental Enforcement: Exxon Penalty Triples to $1.5bn; Mont. Pipeline Ruptures

An Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured late Friday, spilling crude oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River, the same day it emerged that a judge had more than tripled the company’s penalties for a 2006 leak at a Maryland gasoline station.

The pipeline burst about ten miles west of Billings, coating parts of the river where it runs past the town of Laurel, the New York Times reported. Fearing an explosion, officials evacuated about 140 people for four hours early on Saturday morning.

As of Sunday Exxon said the cause of the spill was unclear, though the Laurel fire chief told the AP that high waters might have eroded parts of the riverbed, exposing the pipeline to debris.

The company noted that the pipeline had been shut down for one day in May because of concerns about rising waters, but was reopened after the company determined that the risks were minimal.

Exxon Mobil said it “deeply regrets this release and is working hard with local emergency authorities to mitigate the impacts of this release on the surrounding communities and to the environment,” the Times reported.

“The pipeline has been shut down and the segment where the release occurred has been isolated,” the company added. “All appropriate state and federal authorities have been alerted.”

Duane Winslow, a disaster and emergency services coordinator for Yellowstone County, said drinking water in the area had so far been determined to be safe. Billings officials initially shut down water intake but reopened it later, according to local television station KTVQ.

Meanwhile in Maryland, it emerged that a jury had awarded plaintiffs suing Exxon Mobil about $1.5 billion.

Documents released by the Baltimore County Circuit Court showed that the jury awarded the 160 plaintiffs more than $1 billion in punitive damages, in addition to the $495 million in compensation awarded for damages earlier last week.

Exxon Mobil’s pressurized gasoline line in Jacksonville, Md., leaked 26,000 gallons of gasoline over 37 days in January and February, Reuters reports.

The company said it would appeal the verdict.

“As we’ve stated throughout the last five years, we sincerely regret this unfortunate accident. We apologize to the Jacksonville community and have devoted significant resources to clean-up, recovery and remediation activities,” Exxon Mobil said in a statement, quoted by Reuters.

The wire service noted that the Maryland award is far higher than the $900 million that Exxon Mobil paid in civil penalties for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spil.

In other news, Greenpeace has reported that Exxon Mobil has slashed its funding for climate skeptic groups, the New York Times reports.

The company promised shareholders in 2008 that it would stop financing groups that had become a “distraction”. The Times says it appears that the company has followed through, with a Greenpeace analysis of Exxon’s most recent worldwide giving report confirming that it has cut funding for climate change denier groups from $3.4 million in 2005 to less than $800,000 in 2010.

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