ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company, pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to charges that it killed 85 protected birds -- including hawks, owls and waterfowl. The company violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in five states over the last five years, according to the Department of Justice.
The company, which reported more than $4 billion in earnings for the second quarter of 2009, will pay $400,000 in fines and $200,000 in community service fees to waterfowl rehabilitation and preservation programs. It will be placed on probation for three years and must implement a plan to minimize bird deaths during that time.
Most of the birds died after exposure to hydrocarbons in uncovered natural gas pits, oil tanks and waste water facilities at ExxonMobil drilling and production plants in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, court documents stated.
Open pits and tanks often attract waterfowl and other birds, which may land in the chemicals and attempt to feed, according to the documents.
"ExxonMobil has extensive operations across the U.S. with bird populations in the millions," a company representative said in a written statement. "Our upstream operations have reported events involving fewer than 100 birds over the past six years."
The company said it had spent more than $2.5 million on nets and plastic "bird balls" that float on the surface of pits and tanks to prevent bird landings at facilities in Colorado and Wyoming.
"We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations," said Colorado U.S. Atty. David M. Gaouette in the Justice Department statement. "An important part of this case is the implementation of an environmental compliance plan that will help prevent future migratory bird deaths."
Bird deaths at ExxonMobil facilities date back to 2003, when employees found two dead mallards in the water near a production plant in Colorado. At the time, an agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned ExxonMobil that it would continue to kill birds if it did not create barriers to natural gas pits and wells containing toxic chemicals, court documents stated.
"There are thousands of such wells across the West and thousands more since the Bush administration opened it all up," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace USA. "How many dead birds go undetected?"