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Texas pollution victims seek millions from Citgo

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The Citgo refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board

Fifteen residents of Corpus Christi, Texas — so sickened by pollution they have been deemed crime victims — are asking a federal judge to force Citgo Petroleum Corp. to set up multimillion-dollar trust funds to cover medical and relocation costs, in a case with national ramifications.

A jury in 2007 convicted Citgo of criminal violations of the Clean Air Act, concluding that the company’s Corpus Christi refinery allowed toxic chemicals to drift from two large, uncovered storage tanks into a nearby neighborhood for a decade.

The company was to have been sentenced last month; the Department of Justice has proposed a fine of slightly more than $2 million. Lawyers for the 15 residents, however, asked U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey to grant the residents crime-victim status so they could testify at the sentencing hearing and, perhaps, win compensation from Citgo. Rainey granted that status on Sept. 14 and postponed the hearing.

In a court filing Wednesday, lawyers for the 15 residents are seeking $80,000 from Citgo for medical screening.

They also want Citgo to establish an $11 million trust fund for treatment of cancer or other illnesses suffered by the more than 300 people who have submitted victim impact statements to the court. A court-appointed special master would decide whose expenses should be covered.

And the lawyers are asking that Citgo set aside $15 million to relocate those who want to leave the area known as Refinery Row. “[B]ecause of Citgo’s crimes, many of the community victims no longer live in a thriving neighborhood, they live in fear that they will be exposed to more chemicals released into the air they breathe, and they understandably wish to move,” the court document says.

The Justice Department says the refinery made more than $1 billion in profits during the 10 years it was in violation of the Clean Air Act. Residents complained of vomiting, dizziness and shortness of breath while chemicals – including benzene, a known carcinogen – were wafting from the tanks.

In a written statement Thursday, Citgo said it “takes this matter very seriously. We proactively addressed these issues seven years ago, prior to the 2007 trial. Our highest priority is always the safety of our employees and members of the local community and that is reflected in everything we and our employees do.”

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor representing the 15 residents pro bono, said the legal arguments being made on their behalf apply to “many other similarly situated persons.”

Rainey’s ruling last month was “very significant,” Cassell said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I think this is the first detailed opinion analyzing what kinds of health effects are sufficient to trigger crime-victim status,” he said.

Rainey declined to grant such status last year, saying the residents hadn’t proved that emissions from Citgo were the “specific cause” of their ailments. Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted a petition — filed by Cassell and another lawyer — stating that the residents were, in fact, crime victims. The appellate court told Rainey to consider new arguments raised by the petition.

In a news release Thursday, the Justice Department said that “any member of the community at large who believes they may be a crime victim” should submit a victim impact statement to the court by Nov. 4. “In this instance,” the department said, “community members may be considered crime victims based on the immediate negative health effects they suffered from breathing noxious fumes from Tanks 116 and 117 during the 1994-2003 time frame.”