CITGO Petroleum Corporation and CITGO Refining and Chemicals Company LLP (CITGO) were sentenced in U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi for violations of the Clean Air Act related to its illegal operation of two massive tanks at their Corpus Christi East Plant Refinery as oil water separators without the required emission control equipment. The failure to equip the tanks with emission controls exposed numerous residents in the Oak Park and Hillcrest communities to chemical emissions.
CITGO Petroleum Corporation was ordered to pay a fine of $500,000 on each of the two Clean Air Act counts of conviction. CITGO Refining and Chemicals Company LLP was ordered to pay a fine of $500,000 on each of the federal Clean Air Act counts of conviction plus $15,000 on each of the three misdemeanor Migratory Bird Treaty Act conviction, for a total of $45,000.
In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey deferred his ruling on victim restitution and a remedial order and will issue a written order on those issues within the next 90 days. Approximately 80 victims appeared in the full court room.
In June 2007, a jury convicted CITGO for illegally operating the two tanks at their Corpus Christi East Plant Refinery between January 1994 and May 2003. The open top tanks were the source of emissions including benzene, a known carcinogen, and other volatile organic compounds, which affected persons in the surrounding communities. Texas state investigators testified at the trial that they traced emissions that caused burning eyes, sore throat, difficulty breathing and other acute health effects back to the tanks on several occasions. The emissions from the tanks were detected in Oak Park and Hillcrest in the form of strong gaseous type odors.
“CITGO’s illegal and careless operation of two massive tanks without emission controls exposed residents – the company’s neighbors – in the Oak Park and Hillcrest communities of Corpus Christi to unacceptable health impacts from toxic chemical emissions,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “I am grateful to the prosecutors, the victim specialists and the federal and state investigators for fighting tirelessly for justice for these residents who deserve to breathe clean air and to be protected under the nation’s Clean Air Act.”
“The stories from victims in this case are a powerful reminder of why we protect clean air for all Americans,” said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Facilities that operate in our backyards, especially in overburdened communities, have a responsibility to follow the nation’s environmental laws. Today’s sentencing supports our commitment to reduce pollutants from the air we breathe, and to fight for those most vulnerable to pollution.”
The Department of Justice, The U.S. Attorney’s Office Victim Witness Section, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division (EPA/CID), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Environmental Crimes Unit and the Federal Bureau of Investigation assisted by the Texas Environmental Crimes Task Force (which also includes agents from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) held three days of community meetings in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Oct. 25-27, 2012, to identify area residents who suffered immediate negative health effects from emissions from the CITGO refinery in order to comply with an order by U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey to make members of the community aware of their potential victim rights, and followed similar meetings held in 2007. Individuals who suffered acute health effects from the emissions prepared victim impact statements for submission to the district court.
On Oct. 11-13, 2013, the same government agencies assisted approximately 90 of the identified victims who were permitted to address Judge Rainey as a part of the sentencing process, which occurred over a three week period. During the hearing, victims told Judge Rainey of the difficulty of living in Hillcrest and Oak Park during the time the tanks were being operated illegally. Residents spoke of the sore throats, difficulty breathing, burning eyes, skin rashes and damage to property caused by the chemical emissions that were coming from the tanks.