Oil Giant Citgo Gets Slap On the Wrist for 10 Years of Illegal Operations
A foreign oil company convicted of polluting a Texas community's air with dangerous chemicals has gotten off easy in a criminal case that could undercut the prosecution of environmental crimes in the U.S. The case revolves around Venezuelan-owned Citgo Petroleum’s decade-long violation of the federal Clean Air Act at its refinery in Corpus Christi.
In 2007, the Citgo refinery became the first to be criminally convicted of violating the Clean Air Act by a U.S. jury. The refinery had spent a decade illegally operating two giant oil-water separator tanks without any emission controls. Every day for 10 years, nearby residents breathed noxious fumes emitted from the roofless tanks, including the carcinogen benzene.
It took another seven years, until February, before the judge in the case finally sentenced the company. U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey fined Citgo a little more than $2 million—a penalty prosecutors said would not deter Citgo from committing future crimes since, they argued, the company made $1 billion in profit as a result of its illegal operation. Corpus Christi residents were disappointed with the fine, but disappointment quickly turned into fear and confusion when the judge refused to announce in court that day his ruling on how much restitution must be paid to the refinery’s neighbors.
On April 30, people who had been awaiting a decision for years finally found out what they would receive from Citgo: absolutely nothing.
“When I walked out of [the courtroom] I knew what it was gonna be: he was going in Citgo’s favor,” says Thelma Morgan, who lived two blocks away from Citgo for more than 35 years and whose husband and son were also exposed to toxic chemicals. “When he said ‘I’ll notify you all by letter’ I said then, ‘You’re against us, so we can forget it.’”
Morgan, 79, says she was regularly sick during the time she lived near Citgo, but her husband got the worst of it. A host of health problems forced him into early retirement, so he was home more than she was. One day he was gardening when he suddenly broke out in blisters. Doctors asked if he’d been exposed to any chemicals. He later developed colon cancer and died in 2003, just two years after the family moved out of the Hillcrest neighborhood bordering the refinery.
On one occasion, Morgan says, Citgo paid her after she was exposed to a chemical that came from the refinery. She says she couldn’t stop vomiting and thought she had the flu until she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She doesn’t remember the amount Citgo offered her but thinks it was about $450.
People who live in the Hillcrest and Oak Park neighborhoods nearest the refinery have been hit hardest. Many have stories about exposures that led to respiratory problems, burning eyes and noses, scratchy throats, nausea and sometimes vomiting and severe headaches. Foul odors penetrate their homes and can linger for days. Residents say the worst episodes happen at night: that’s when the strongest odors come, sometimes following explosions or flares. A 2009 blast nearly sent a cloud of hydrogen fluoride, a deadly gas, into the neighborhoods.
Residents’ complaints to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality—more than 200 of them during the 10-year period—led the agency to inspect Citgo repeatedly, but the company covered its tracks. During the conviction phase of the federal trial, the Justice Department showed that Citgo employees removed the oil from the uncovered tanks each time the refinery was due for an inspection, so that by the time an investigator arrived, the company was operating legally. It wasn’t until a TCEQ investigator arrived unannounced that the agency realized Citgo was operating the tanks illegally.
The Justice Department proved that Corpus Christi residents’ ailments occurred as a result of Citgo’s actions. It was the first time sufferers of effects from air pollution had ever been recognized as crime victims in the U.S.
Bill Miller, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lawyer who worked with the Justice Department on the Citgo prosecution and has since retired, says air pollution cases are much harder to prove than water contamination cases. It’s difficult to establish that a company’s emissions caused specific people’s health problems and deaths, he says, even if courts broadly acknowledge that exposure to toxic chemicals is harmful to human health.
Following that line of thought, Judge Rainey initially denied 20 victims’ request to be granted restitution under the Crime Victims' Rights Act, but the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered him to reconsider. Eventually, Rainey granted crime victim status to more than 800 residents, which allowed them to give oral testimony in court at the beginning of the sentencing hearing last fall. Morgan was one of about 160 people who shared their stories.
Experts say the judge’s refusal to grant the victims restitution last month sets a dangerous precedent for similar cases, particularly if the government doesn’t appeal the ruling.
“I think it’s clear that the judge never wanted to consider them victims in the first place,” says Melissa Jarrell, a criminal justice professor at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi who studies environmental crime. “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.”
Too Big to Punish
Rainey, a former director of the Angleton, TX, Chamber of Commerce, was appointed to federal judgeship by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. He was recommended for the position by Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator who was instrumental in engineering the “Enron loophole” that deregulated electronic energy trading, and whose wife served on the board of Houston-based Enron, an energy-trading company that collapsed in the wake of an accounting scandal in 2001.
Rainey rejected the residents’ and the government’s requests for restitution, which would have included funding for annual cancer screenings and other diseases linked to chemical exposure. The Justice Department also had asked that Citgo set up one trust fund to cover property buyouts and relocation costs and another for victims’ future medical expenses, attorney’s fees and other administrative costs, at a total cost of $55 million.
In an April 30 statement that baffled many, Rainey wrote that victims would be better off receiving nothing from Citgo than waiting for the court to determine what they are owed. That echoed his earlier decision to fine Citgo only $2 million for four violations of the Clean Air Act, a fraction of the potential penalty.
The Justice Department had argued that the Corpus Christi refinery made $1 billion as a direct result of illegally operating the tanks. It wanted to fine the company using a provision that allows punishment of twice the “gross, pecuniary gain” realized by violating the law, which would have allowed for a fine of up to $2 billion. But Rainey—after nearly seven years of delays in sentencing—ruled that empaneling a jury to determine Citgo’s exact profits would “unduly prolong” the sentencing process.
The Crime Victims' Rights Act allows the residents to appeal the judge’s ruling on restitution, but only 20 have legal representation. Their lawyers say they plan to file their appeal this week. It’s up to the government to appeal the sentence on behalf of the more than 800 other victims. The Justice Department declined to comment on the matter.
“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,” Miller says. “It basically emasculates environmental crime prosecution in the U.S. completely.”
If the Justice Department doesn’t appeal Citgo’s sentence by the end of the month, Miller says, it will send the message that some corporations are too big to punish. Environmental crime cases rarely go to trial because most corporations settle out of court. When the government succeeds in prosecuting them—and, even more seldom, secures a conviction—it should take that opportunity to show that it will aggressively punish environmental violators, Miller says.
“If you’re not going to do anything about it then it behooves every large corporation who gets caught violating a complex statute like Clean Air Act to go to trial and hide behind complexity of it,” he says. “If I was a company like Citgo and I got caught doing something like this again, I’d litigate it.”
The Justice Department offered evidence during the sentencing hearing that Citgo made $150 billion in profits during the 10 years its Corpus Christi refinery was violating the law. The 165,000-barrel-per-day refinery stands in stark contrast to the low-income, mostly minority neighborhoods in its shadow. People simply can’t afford to move out—most of the homes there are appraised at $30,000 to $40,000 and residents say to move even a few miles away from the refinery would cost them upwards of $100,000.
Citgo didn’t respond to requests for comment, but has previously said that it is proud of its environmental record and its role in the Corpus Christi community.
Residents say they don’t feel safe around a company that continues to expose them to harmful chemicals. Citgo may have covered the oil-water separator tanks years ago, but the company has had a less-than-stellar track record since.
In July 2009, an explosion at the refinery alerted residents that something was terribly wrong. An equipment failure in the alkylation unit had caused a release of hydrogen fluoride—a highly corrosive and potentially deadly chemical that about 50 U.S. refineries still use, despite safer alternatives. The release triggered a fire that burned for more than two days and severely burned a worker, who lost an arm in the explosion.
Citgo and local authorities alerted only about 15 to 20 households of the release, even though a 1986 industry-funded test found that hydrogen fluoride—also known as hydrofluoric acid, or HF—can travel up to five miles in lethal concentrations. The company claimed in the local newspaper that the release had never posed any harm to the community and insisted the chemical didn’t cross the plant’s fence line.
“They have this make-believe fence that [they say] nothing goes over, under or through,” says Connie Gonzalez, who lives about three miles from the refinery. “When they have a release you can smell it and you can see it sometimes and then they put out in the news, ‘The neighborhood was never in harm’s way.’”
Gonzalez’s husband worked at Citgo for 20 years; for a time she took him lunch every day and sometimes dropped him off or picked him up from work. Gonzalez developed breast cancer—she’s now in remission—and has nerve damage in her feet that makes her feel as though she’s constantly walking on rocks. Her husband has prostate cancer and heart problems; the couple traces their conditions to the refinery’s emissions. Before Gonzalez found out she had breast cancer, she says, a blood test revealed she had benzene in her blood.
At the time of the HF release, Citgo claimed only 30 pounds of the chemical had escaped the refinery. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigated the accident, later estimated that about 4,000 of the 46,091 pounds released inside the facility had gone off site. The TCEQ imposed a fine of $303,294. The federal government never prosecuted Citgo for the incident.
The HF release isn’t the only problem Citgo has had in Corpus Christi. Since the company’s federal conviction, the TCEQ has fined it seven times, sometimes for multiple violations, for a total of $87,201. Those violations included “emissions events” that released thousands of pounds of volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and other pollutants. It’s unclear how much of this pollution stayed inside the plant, but in at least a few cases the TCEQ made it clear that some of the emissions drifted into nearby neighborhoods.
“Never does anything escape from the plant,” Gonzalez says. “And yet everybody has allergies and people are dying of cancer.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The chance that UK summer days could hit the 40 degree Celsius mark on the thermometer is on the rise, a new study from the country's Met Office Hadley Centre has found.
- As Extreme Weather Turns Deadly in the UK, Climate Activists Are ... ›
- UK Parliament First in World to Declare Climate Emergency ... ›
By Melissa Hawkins
After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
- U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Now No. 1 in World - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Pass 100,000 - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start ... ›
By Eoin Higgins
Climate advocates pointed to news Sunday that fracking giant Chesapeake Energy was filing for bankruptcy as further evidence that the fossil fuel industry's collapse is being hastened by the coronavirus pandemic and called for the government to stop propping up businesses in the field.
- Fracking Industry's Propaganda Hypes Shale Gas Production and ... ›
- Another Blow to the Fracking Industry—Chesapeake Energy's ... ›
- Former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon Is Back to ... ›
By Neil King and Gabriel Borrud
Human beings all over the world agreed to strict limitations to their rights when governments made the decision to enter lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis. Many have done it willingly on behalf of the collective. So why can't this same attitude be seen when tackling climate change?
- The Crunch Question on Climate: How Can I Help? - EcoWatch ›
- The Power of Collective Action Gangnam Style - EcoWatch ›
- Scientist Finds Remarkable Way to Connect People Emotionally ... ›
Fire experts have already criticized President Trump's planned fireworks event for this Friday at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial as a dangerous idea. Now, it turns out the event may be socially irresponsible too as distancing guidelines and mask wearing will not be enforced at the event, according to CNN.
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
- Attendees at Trump's First Rally Since March Can't Sue if They Get ... ›
By Emma Charlton
Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
- Food Waste Set to Increase by 33 Percent Within 10 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Reducing Food Waste Is Good for Economy and Climate, Report Says ›
- 23 Organizations Eliminating Food Waste During COVID-19 ... ›
Puerto Rico's governor declared a state of emergency on Monday after a severe drought on the island left 140,000 people without access to running water, despite the necessary role that hand washing and hygiene plays in stopping the novel coronavirus, as The Independent reported.
- When the Government Failed Puerto Rico, Local Communities ... ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›