CHELSEA — Roseann Bongiovanni was on an early morning training run for the Boston Marathon a decade ago when a stench from the Mystic River made it difficult to breathe. A Chelsea native accustomed to the industrial waterfront’s malodorous scents, she recognized this whiff as different: It was diesel.
The cause turned out to be 15,000 gallons of fuel spilling from an oil terminal across the river in Everett, where tankers deliver petroleum products. Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, had failed to replace a $2 metal coupling, contributing to the spill, which resulted in criminal charges of negligence and a $6 million settlement for polluting the Island End and Mystic rivers.
The lingering memory led her to sign on to a new lawsuit alleging Exxon Mobil is neglecting to protect her community against the effects of climate change.
The first-of-its-kind lawsuit is drawing new attention as Exxon Mobil’s longtime chief executive, Rex Tillerson, faces scrutiny as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state.
The suit’s allegations shift the climate change debate from the distant domains of polar bears and the fate of future generations to the here and now. The suit claims that along the Island End River, which separates Everett and Chelsea, rising sea levels will make it more likely that Exxon’s oil terminal could disgorge a toxic stew of carcinogens into residents’ basements and streets.
“Exxon Mobil’s failure to adapt the Everett Terminal to increased precipitation, rising sea levels, and storm surges of increasing frequency and magnitude puts the facility, the public health, and the environment at great risk because a significant storm surge, rise in sea level, and/or extreme rainfall event may flood the facility and release solid and hazardous wastes into the Island End River, Mystic River, and directly onto the city streets of Everett,” the suit says.
Local activists — including Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots Inc., an environmental justice group — have testified about the terminal’s effect on their lives, in an attempt to shore up the suit.
“What people in the national press are talking about, we feel this every single day,” said Bongiovanni. “It’s not just about climate change and saving polar ice caps. This is about sea levels rising and people being forced out of their houses.”
The suit was filed in US District Court in Boston in September by the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, the environmental advocacy group responsible for forcing the cleanup of Boston Harbor.
Exxon Mobil has filed a motion to dismiss it, saying the organization does not have standing to sue and has no personal interest in the terminal.
A spokesman for the company declined to speak about the allegations, calling the suit “yet another attempt to use the courts to promote a political agenda.”
Exxon Mobil is also the target of investigations by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York, who are seeking documents on the company’s decades of research on climate change.
The inquiries follow last year’s reports by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that the petroleum company had studied the effects its products could have on climate as early as the 1970s but spent subsequent decades casting doubt on the certainty and legitimacy of such research.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a Jan. 11 confirmation hearing for Tillerson, at which allegations about an Exxon climate coverup could emerge.
Unlike the law enforcement probes, though, Conservation Law Foundation’s suit focuses on existing environmental laws and permits, claiming Exxon Mobil is violating them daily. Any violations would be exacerbated by the rising sea levels and stronger storms associated with climate change, which Exxon has failed to make adaptations to guard against, the suit asserts.
“What it means, in simple terms, is that Exxon is using the Mystic River as an open sewer, rather than invest in the controls and treatment and preventive measures that this facility needs,” said Bradley Campbell, the group’s president.
“We’re not asking them to prepare for a meteor strike,” Campbell added. “We’re asking them to prepare for the conditions that their own scientists affirm are certain to come, some of which are already here.
“Just as when they’re operating an oil tanker, that vessel has to be prepared for sea conditions that may arise, this has to be ready for the weather conditions they know are coming.”
A Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman did not directly address allegations that Exxon Mobil is violating its permits and not facing enforcement penalties. The EPA, she said, “focuses its resources on the most significant pollution problems that pose the greatest threats to public health and the environment.”
In its court response so far, Exxon Mobil has said the Conservation Law Foundation’s lawsuit is improperly aimed at trying to persuade the EPA to tighten regulations that do not currently require permit holders to consider “alleged climate change impacts.”
In a memo supporting its motion to dismiss the case, filed in December, Exxon Mobil noted that in its EPA permit, “Nowhere does that permit mandate consideration of the speculative risks of climate change.”
The Conservation Law Foundation has also seized on the company’s plans to respond to an oil spill or other emergency. As it was gathering documents for the suit, the group was unable to obtain Exxon Mobil’s emergency response plans, from either the company or the government, Campbell noted.
As a result, more than 160 activists descended on Exxon Mobil’s Everett Terminal last month with a letter seeking the response plans. They were unsuccessful — the terminal manager wouldn’t accept their letter and called the police — but they captured the awkward exchange on video.
“We wanted to send a message,” said City Councilor Damali Vidot. “If a Category 1 hurricane does come, what does that mean for our community?”
Part of their message is that they’re not getting the respect that another, wealthier municipality might demand from a multinational corporation.
Chelsea is a congested, low-income city of immigrants and people of color. Exxon Mobil’s Everett Terminal, which runs up against an Everett neighborhood, is at the Island End River, which flows into the Mystic River. While other stretches of the Mystic are being revitalized by development — think Assembly Row in Somerville and the Wynn Resorts casino in Everett — this stretch of the waterfront is dotted with oil tanks and other industrial structures, and its few parks are disconnected. Canoes are few and far between.
“I believe that the industries in Chelsea and other neighboring communities profit off of the use of our water resources, including the Mystic and Island End rivers,” Vidot said in her affidavit in support of the Conservation Law Foundation’s suit, “while residents pay the price of living with and around polluted waters.”