Web of Deceit

Holding ExxonMobil Accountable for Its Decades of Climate Denial

By Laurie O'Reilly

On January 9, 2006, residents of the Mystic River communities of Chelsea and Everett awoke to find the foul odor of diesel hanging in the air and the river covered in a blue-green sheen. Clearly, one of the local industries that dominate the shores of the lower Mystic had spilled fuel into the river. But, as the hours ticked by, none of them stepped forward to claim responsibility. Meanwhile, the spill continued its sickly-hued spread up the Island End River and down to Boston Harbor.

It wasn’t until two days later, when the Coast Guard came knocking on the door, that anyone at the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company realized the spill had come from its oil terminal, which sits perched on the river’s edge. With no one at the facility even noticing, faulty valves had allowed 2,500 gallons of kerosene and 12,700 gallons of low-sulfur diesel to pour into the river. Exxon’s negligence went deeper than that one night, however. According to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the company not only knew about the faulty valves, it had never even tried to repair them. What’s more, had its employees conducted a regular required inspection of the facility, they would have discovered the spill while it was happening.

Ten-plus years and a $6.1 million fine later, you would think that ExxonMobil had learned its lesson at its Everett terminal. But it hasn’t. Today, virtually every time that it rains, this same facility dumps toxic pollution into the Mystic River in clear violation of its Clean Water Act permit. What’s worse, says CLF President Bradley Campbell, the storage terminal is “utterly unprepared for the more intense storms, the more intense rain, and the sea level rise that lie immediately in front of us, given climate change we know we can’t avoid.” A major storm could overwhelm the facility, resulting in thousands of gallons of oil spilling into the densely populated neighborhoods that surround it – and into the Mystic River and Boston Harbor.

Anyone who’s been following the news in recent years won’t be surprised by ExxonMobil’s indifference to the climate impacts that lie ahead, except where it will impact the company’s bottom line. Its climate deceit is well documented by its own scientists, who recognized that fossil fuels were impacting the climate as early as 1969. But Exxon saw dollar signs instead of disaster in our changing climate, taking steps to capitalize on melting Arctic ice and the oil reserves now accessible because of it, while at the same time funding climate denial organizations to confuse the public about the impending reality.

Communities living in Exxon’s shadow worry about the impact a spill would have on their neighborhoods.

Here in Massachusetts, Exxon’s decades of deceit and indifference have left local communities and sensitive ecosystems at risk of catastrophe. “This is where climate change and climate deceit really hit home,” says Campbell. “A spill of hazardous waste or oil here isn’t going to just result in a cleanup task for Exxon, it’s going to do severe damage and harm to families and children.”

CLF’s lawsuit against the corporate giant is aimed at changing those odds by forcing the company to live up to its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act and thereby protect its community neighbors. “Exxon is rolling the dice with the safety of the communities that have hosted them for generations,” says Campbell. “We need only speak with our community partners to understand that this lawsuit is vital, not for some abstract principle, but for the safety of homes and businesses that lie in harm’s way.”

Indeed, those community partners – including Chelsea CollaborativeMystic River Watershed AssociationGreenRoots, Inc., and others – have been critical in helping CLF shape its case against Exxon. “At every step of this case, we’re in close consultation with the community to make sure they feel their needs and rights to protection are being respected,” Campbell says. “Also, to the extent there are opportunities for ExxonMobil to mitigate the damage it has done, we want to ensure those remedies are shaped in ways that respond to the priorities of the community.”

Exxon’s Everett facility pollutes every time that it rains now. Climate change heightens that risk.

Chelsea and Everett aren’t the only communities in danger if companies across New England fail to prepare for the rising seas and increased storm surges that climate change will bring. “This is an issue for everyone who cares about the health of their family, the safety of their business, the integrity of their neighborhoods,” Campbell says. Since filing the case against Exxon, CLF has also sued Shell Oil over its facilities in Providence and New Haven, as well as other oil companies flouting the law.

Campbell’s goal is for CLF’s cases to serve as wake-up calls for corporations nationwide to step up and demonstrate that they are ready for the types of weather that could put a community at risk. “Every architect or engineer designing a new building or a new piece of infrastructure needs to bear in mind what that facility is going to have to withstand in the 20 years that lie ahead,” he says.

As one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the world, says Campbell, “ExxonMobil has a unique obligation to lead the way on this issue. It can continue to ignore its responsibility to Everett and Chelsea – and to the many other communities that host its facilities. Or it can protect these communities and make its facility a model of what corporations should be doing across the country to prepare for the climate impacts that we know are coming.”

Photo at top: ExxonMobil’s Everett facility puts local waterways and nearby neighborhoods at risk from toxic chemicals and oil spills. Photo: Alex MacLean

A version of this story was originally published in Conservation Matters in 2016.