HOUSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday said two environmental groups' could sue for enforcement of federal pollution standards at Exxon Mobil Corp's Baytown, Texas, refinery, the nation's largest.
Exxon, the largest U.S. refiner, had asked federal Judge David Hitner to throw out the lawsuit because the Baytown refinery is already subject to federal Clean Air Act enforcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Sierra Club and Environment Texas brought the lawsuit in December under a provision of the Clean Air Act that allows private individuals to seek enforcement of federal pollution standards when the federal agency fails to do so.
"Congress specifically allowed for citizen enforcement suits because sometimes government agencies fall down on the job, and this case is a perfect example of that," said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.
Citing notices filed by Exxon with state and federal regulators, the groups said the Baytown refinery and adjoining chemical plant have released more than 8 million pounds (3.6million kilograms) of pollutants in the last five years beyond the levels permitted under the Clean Air Act.
An Exxon spokesman said the company would continue to defend itself in court.
"The court's decision is not a comment on the merits of the suit," said Exxon's Kevin Allexon. "Over the last five years the Baytown refinery and chemical plant has produced total annual emissions that are nearly 40 percent below the federal permit limits set by EPA."
No date has been set for a trial of the suit.
A similar lawsuit in 2008 against Royal Dutch Shell Plc for pollution at its joint-venture refinery in Deer Park, Texas, resulted in a settlement in which Shell agreed to further cut emissions and pay $5.8 million for pollution control programs in Houston area.
The Exxon Baytown refinery has refining capacity of 560,640 barrels per day.
(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Marguerita Choy)