For ten years Citgo Petroleum operated illegally in Corpus Christi, Texas, spilling noxious fumes into the surrounding area without any emissions controls. After the company was brought to court for its pollution, it took another seven years for the sentencing to be carried out. The verdict? A fine of just over $2 million, a fraction of the $1 billion in profits the refinery reaped while endangering the health of nearby residents.
In 2007, the Citgo refinery was found to be guilty of violating the federal Clean Air Act by operating two oil-water separator tanks without roofs or any kind of emissions controls. In that time, residents experienced severe headaches, burning eyes and noses, respiratory problems, nausea and vomiting.
Thelma Morgan, age 79, lived two blocks away from the Citgo refinery for 35 years and was frequently ill during that time. One day, her husband, whose health problems eventually forced him to stay at home, broke into a rash of sudden blisters while he was working in their garden. A doctor asked if he’d been exposed to any chemicals and in 2003 he was dead of colon cancer.
Corpus Christ residents filed over 200 complaints against the refinery before Citgo was taken to court. Throughout that time, Citgo continued to operate without emissions controls on its oil-water tanks. The Texas Commission on Environment Quality frequently inspected the site, only to discover later that Citgo cleaned and emptied the tanks of oil prior to every scheduled visit. The illegal operation was not discovered until a random inspection by the TCEQ.
U.S. District Court Judge John D. Rainey, who passed down the sentencing, has refused restitution to the 800 residents granted crime victim status in the case. Of those 800, 160 shared their stories of ailments since moving into the toxic area – and not one will receive compensation.
Air pollution cases are usually much harder to prove, according to Bill Miller, a former EPA lawyer who worked with the Justice Department on the Citgo prosecution. This was Judge Rainey’s excuse when he denied crime victim status to residents. But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals forced him to reconsider.
Like several legal professionals studying the case, Melissa Jarrell, a criminal justice professor at Texas A&M, worries about the precedent this will set. “I think it’s clear that the judge never wanted to consider them victims in the first place,” she says of the town’s residents. “Why that’s concerning to me is that ultimately the judge was the victims’ safety net—he was the one that could really help them and he didn’t.”
Victim restitution could have included annual cancer screenings and other medical and legal aid, but instead the town will receive nothing. According to Bill Miller, “It doesn’t look like the Department of Justice has any intention of appealing the sentencing of Citgo, which is a crime in itself in my opinion. It basically emasculates environmental crime prosecution in the U.S. completely.”
You can read the court’s opinion on the matter here.