CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Citgo Corp. will not have to pay any restitution to people who experienced health problems from the company’s previously uncovered oil tanks in Corpus Christi, Texas, despite a 2007 conviction of environmental crimes for the violation, a federal judge has ruled.
Victims of the pollution had successfully proved to the court that they experienced burning eyes, rashes, vomiting, and other health problems because of Citgo’s illegal emissions between 1994 and 2003. Because the exact chemical makeup of the emissions was never figured out, the victims attorneys had argued that future medical monitoring was needed “to allay their fears that they may suffer from cancer or other diseases because Citgo placed them criminally at risk, and the fact that the identity of the chemicals to which they were exposed is unknown further exacerbates this need.”
However, after waiting seven years to make the decision, U.S. District Judge John David Rainey ruled that there was strong unlikelihood that they would ever been able to prove long-term health problems from the pollution, and no evidence supporting claims that they may need future cancer screenings.
Judge Rainey also said that it would be too difficult to calculate how much medical monitoring would be needed for each of the 800 individuals who claimed to be harmed from the pollution, and how much that would cost. Moreover, the need to provide restitution to the victims did not justify that effort, nor did it justify extending the time-frame of the case, Judge Rainey wrote.
“The ‘complication and prolongation of the sentencing process … outweighs the need to provide restitution to any victims,’” he wrote. “‘The magnitude of expected future harm can[not] be reasonably estimated.’”
Attorney Paul Cassell told the Texas Observer that he would be appealing the decision for the 20 plaintiffs he represents, calling it a “backward” ruling that focused “too much on the defendant’s interests.” It was unclear whether the U.S. Department of Justice — which pursued the criminal charges and pushed for $25 million in restitution — would pursue the case further.
“It doesn’t look like Department of Justice has any intention of appealing the sentencing of Citgo, which is a crime in itself in my opinion,” Miller told the Observer. “It basically emasculates environmental crime prosecution in the United States completely.”
In 2007, Citgo was found guilty of illegally letting two tanks that contain oil and toxic chemicals like benzene vent into the open for nearly 10 years, into a community mostly made up of minorities and the elderly. Because the tanks were uncovered, a large number of birds also landed and drowned in the chemicals, a violation which Citgo was also convicted for.
Citgo and its subsidiary, Citgo Refining & Chemicals Co., were eventually ordered to each pay $1 million for the two Clean Air Act violations it was charged with, the maximum amount allowed under that law. Even so, plaintiff attorneys at the time were hopeful that restitution might result in a larger fine on the company and more compensation for those exposed to the pollution. The U.S. Justice Department had previously calculated that Citgo earned approximately $1 billion in profits during the time it was violating the Clean Air Act, so the original lawsuit sought $2 billion — twice the “gross, pecuniary gain” of those profits.
The case against Citgo marked the first time in U.S. history that victims of an air pollution crime have been allowed to personally testify during sentencing hearings. Those hearings included the testimony of a resident named Jean Salone, who lives two and a half blocks east of Citgo’s refinery, according to an account in the Texas Observer. Salone told the Observer that the emissions had been so strong that her granddaughter, who lives in Austin, refused to stay with her while she visited.
“She tells me, ‘You don’t go nowhere to die, grandmother,’” Salone said, adding that she was hoping that Citgo would be ordered to help residents move.
Judge Rainey, however, refused to grant the requested $18 million in restitution for property buy-outs and relocation, noting that the residents live in an area of Corpus Christi called “Refinery Row,” where there are numerous potential sources of benzene emissions, crude oil tanks, and wastewater treatment plants. The plaintiffs, he said, were not successful in proving that Citgo’s tanks were the specific reason why they needed to move — especially since Citgo’s tanks had been covered years ago.
“Even assuming the community members are correct that Citgo continues to illegally release other emissions, the court can only focus on the offense conduct,” he wrote. “There is no identifiable risk that these tanks will cause future harm.”
Judge Rainey’s full ruling can be found here.