ExxonMobilFlaring.adv 47.jpg

Presumed flaring at ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, for file photos.

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING

ExxonMobil has agreed to pay a penalty and improve pollution control at three Baton Rouge plants as part of a settlement with federal authorities who accused the company of violating the Clean Air Act.

Tuesday, regulators said the company spewed unlawful amounts of chemicals linked to cancer and smog at eight facilities in Louisiana and Texas.

Evidence indicates problems at the sites — including the Baton Rouge chemical, polyolefins and plastics plants — date back to around 2005 or 2006, officials said.

Harmful pollutants were not properly burned off through the facilities' flares, Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Assistant Administrator Patrick Traylor said in a conference call with reporters.

That caused the release of substances that contribute to ozone, or smog. It also allowed the release of chemicals such as the carcinogen benzene which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, causes "cells not to work correctly. For example, it can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells." It can also have "adverse reproductive effects in women," the U.S. Department of Justice said in a news release announcing the settlement.

DOJ had alleged that the emissions violated the federal Clean Air Act. ExxonMobil is required under the settlement to install new air pollution control and monitoring measures at an estimated cost of approximately $300 million.

The company must also pay a $2.5 million civil penalty and perform $2.5 million in environmental projects. That will include $1 million to plant trees in Texas and $1.5 million to buy a mobile air quality monitoring vehicle for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

"This settlement means cleaner air for communities across Texas and Louisiana, and reinforces EPA’s commitment to enforce the law and hold those who violate it accountable," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement.

In a statement, Exxon's Baton Rouge office said the company is working to reduce the emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic chemicals, substances known as NOX and VOCs.

"We take our environmental responsibility seriously, and employees spend thousands of hours every year monitoring, validating and documenting our compliance with regulations and permits. We remain committed to maintaining high standards of environmental performance as well as making a positive contribution to the livelihood and well-being of our communities," the statement reads.

"In fact, ExxonMobil Baton Rouge has achieved a 76 percent reduction in VOCs, an 82 percent reduction in (sulfur dioxide) and a 37 percent reduction in NOX since 1990. We have spent about $1.6 billion over the last five years to improve environmental performance."

The Texas branch of Public Citizen, a nonprofit founded by Ralph Nader, was quick to condemn Tuesday's settlement.

"This enforcement action is a slap on the wrist for ExxonMobil," wrote Texas Director Adrian Shelley in a statement.

"A mere $2.5 million dollars for years of violations at eight facilities is hardly a punishment. And the corrective measures are things that any well-operated facility should have done years ago. Today’s action by EPA sends a clear message to polluters: Don’t worry about your Clean Air Act violations. The EPA will clear them right up."

While Exxon agreed to pay a $2.5 million penalty, the DOJ had initially sought between $32,500 and $95,284 per violation per day, according to documents filed in the U.S. District Court in Houston.

Authorities said they couldn't comment on how they came to agree on specific numbers but said they were satisfied with the result, adding that it was worth taking some extra time on the issue to get the plants back into compliance.

"We continue to actively and vigorously enforce the law," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeff Wood of the DOJ's environment and Natural Resources Division.

Exxon will have to start the additional monitoring requirements within the year. Performing construction on the flare equipment to bring it online will take a bit longer. By way of example, authorities said, the gear at the plant in Beaumont, Texas must be online by June of 2020.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.