A lawsuit, touted as the first of its kind, has the potential to set precedent for environmental law. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is suing Exxon Mobil Corp., claiming the company is liable for ensuring it is prepared for the consequences of climate change. The lawsuit claims Exxon has been aware of the risks of global warming since the 1970s, and yet has failed to adequately design and locate chemical storage facilities to resist potential consequences.
It is common for individuals, organization and other entities to sue companies for oil leaks, toxic spills and other man-made environmental disasters after they occur. But this, legal experts agree, appears to the first lawsuit of its kind, seeking to hold a company responsible for adapting to climate change, and preparing for it.
The suit was inspired partly by a 2006 diesel fuel spill at Exxon’s Everett, Mass., facility, which polluted the Mystic River, upstream from Boston Harbor. CLF argues that Exxon is committing “climate deceit” by denying that climate change has the likely potential to result in increases storm surges, flooding and other environmental events – similar to the 2006 event leading to that spill – that could significantly damage fuel and chemical storage facilities.
By failing to insulate its terminal against climate change threats, CLF alleges Exxon Mobil is violating provisions of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
For its part, Exxon Mobil representatives dispute that the company has any definitive knowledge about the potential risks of global warming. A company spokesperson says the lawsuit is based on political agenda rather than legal merit. It also says it retrofits its facilities to protect them against harsh storms.
The Everett facility storage containers hold at least 44 toxic chemicals, along with hazardous wastes and other pollutants, some of them carcinogenic. CLF alleges future storms could rupture the tanks and cause widespread environmental damage to the community and the waterways.
The outcome of this litigation could have a profound effect on hundreds of other fuel and chemical storage facilities throughout the nation. Lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section will monitor this litigation and see what develops.
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