Arkansas landowners living along a 70-year-old pipeline that ruptured in March 2013 and flooded the town of Mayflower with crude oil appeared before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minn., to ask the three-judge panel to revive their complaint against Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co.
Lawyers for the landowners argue that the case should be reinstated because they can prove that the pipeline is damaging their property and diminishing their ability to enjoy it. The landowners claim that easements say the company is responsible for repairing, replacing, or removing the pipeline, which stretches 850 miles from Illinois to Texas.
The pipeline ruptured on March 29, 2013, flooding the Mayflower community with tens of thousands of gallons of highly toxic and sticky Canadian tar sands oil. The spill forced the evacuation of dozens of homes in Mayflower, a community about 25 miles north of Little Rock. The landowners say the oil spill amounted to a breach of contract with them.
Exxon Mobil disputes the landowner’s claims, arguing that the plaintiffs are trying to use a common-law claim to regulate pipeline safety, which only the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) can do.
“We can’t enforce the safety of it. We’re not trying to,” a lawyer for the plaintiffs told the judges. The plaintiffs’ counsel also wants to see the case move forward as a class action.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller dismissed the case and removed its class-action certification while acknowledging that his decision seemed unfair.
“If Exxon’s position prevails, the message to easement grantors is that they are helpless in attempting to avoid a pipeline oil spill, and have no rights until after the oil starts spewing from the pipeline. And, this does not seem fair,” Miller wrote in his ruling dismissing the case.
“On the other hand, if plaintiffs’ position prevails, easement grantors would essentially be able to hold pipeline easement holders hostage, threatening them with lawsuits or contract rescission every time the easement grantors possess any notion that the companies are not meeting the easement grantors’ personal safety standards. And, this appears to be neither fair nor commercially acceptable.”
A lawyer for Exxon Mobil, which is also disputing a $2.6-million civil penalty for the spill, told Appeals Court Judge William Riley that only the PHMSA can make determinations about pipeline safety, effectively pre-empting landowners from suing, the Associated Press reported.
According to the AP, this claim prompted the judge to ask Exxon Mobil’s lawyer if property owners must stand aside and wait for the government to make safety determinations and other regulatory decisions for all 850 miles of the underground pipeline.