Exxon-Mobil: admitted bird killers

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Exxon-Mobil had a bad day in court in Denver yesterday. The firm pleaded guilty to killing migratory birds in five states, including Colorado. The size of the fine and community-service payments Exxon-Mobil has agreed to pony up -- $600,000 -- is, to use an avian reference, chicken feed given the profits the company has reaped in recent years. Nonetheless, the corporate behmoth is also having to invest in a plan to prevent such slayings in the future. These policy changes have already cost Exxon-Mobil several million bucks, and will likely require the investment of a substantial amount more. Which ain't cheep.

Look below to read the U.S. Department of Justice press release on the plea.


WASHINGTON - Exxon-Mobil Corporation, the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Denver to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in five states during the past five years, the Justice Department announced today.

The company has agreed to pay fines and community service payments totaling $600,000 and will implement an environmental compliance plan over the next three years aimed at preventing bird deaths on the company's facilities in the affected states. According to papers filed in court, the company has already spent over $2.5 million to begin implementation of the plan.

The charges stem from the deaths of approximately 85 protected birds, including waterfowl, hawks and owls, at Exxon-Mobil drilling and production facilities in Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas between 2004 and 2009. According to the charges and other information presented in court, most of the birds died after exposure to hydrocarbons in uncovered natural gas well reserve pits and waste water storage facilities at Exxon-Mobil sites in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

The company has entered into a plea agreement with the government, calling for guilty pleas to the five charges and a sentence of $400,000 in fines and $200,000 in community service payments. The fines will be deposited into the federally-administered North American Wetlands Conservation Fund. The community service payments will be made to a non-profit waterfowl rehabilitation foundation in Colorado and the congressionally-chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, designated for waterfowl preservation work in each of the affected states. During a three-year probationary period, Exxon-Mobil must also implement an "environmental compliance plan" designed to keep birds from coming into contact with oily waters at its facilities in the five affected states.

"The environmental compliance plan that Exxon-Mobil has agreed to in this multi-district plea agreement is an important step in protecting migratory birds in these five states," said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

"We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations," said Colorado U.S. Attorney David M. Gaouette. "An important part of this case is the implementation of an environmental compliance plan that will help prevent future migratory bird deaths."

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, enacted in 1918, implements this country's commitments under avian protection treaties with Great Britain (for Canada), Mexico, Japan and Russia. The Act creates a misdemeanor criminal sanction for the unpermitted taking of listed species by any means and in any manner regardless of fault. The maximum penalty for a corporate taking under the MBTA is $15,000, or twice the gross gain or loss resulting from the offense, and five years probation. The birds killed in the five cases include ducks, grebes, ibis, passerines, shorebirds, owls, martin and a hawk. None of these species is listed as endangered or threatened under federal law.

Migratory birds often land on open wastewater ponds at oil and gas facilities and become coated with, or ingest, fatal amounts of hydrocarbons discharged into the water during drilling or production operations. Such killings can be prevented by scrubbing the water of contaminants before discharge, removing the ponds, placing an obstruction such as netting or plastic "bird balls" over the water to prevent contact, or installing commercially-manufactured electronic hazing devices which detect incoming flights of migratory birds and deploy noise and lights to scare them away from the area. Exxon-Mobil's environmental compliance plan will employ these techniques, tailored to each facility, to prevent future mortality.

The cases were investigated by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Robert S. Anderson of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Carey of the District of Colorado.

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