Days before Citgo Petroleum Corp. faces its long-awaited sentencing for criminal Clean Air Act violations at its refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, a Justice Department court filing alleges that a “wide range” of environmental and worker safety violations continue to plague the plant.
Citgo was convicted in June 2007 of two criminal counts stemming from 10 years of toxic emissions from two massive, uncovered storage tanks. Such convictions are rare: The Center for Public Integrity reported last year that Clean Air Act cases have been prosecuted at a far lower rate than Clean Water Act or solid waste cases.
In its filing this week, the Justice Department asks a federal judge to fine Citgo $2,090,000, the maximum allowed under the statute, and put the company on five years’ probation — also the maximum — for illegal emissions of benzene and other hazardous chemicals from the tanks between 1994 and 2004.
The department says the refinery made almost $1.16 billion in profits during that period.
Citgo’s sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin Monday in U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi and could last several days. In an e-mailed statement Friday morning, the company said it “embraces a culture of safety that is reflected in everything we and our employees do. We are proud of our record and of the important role our refineries play in providing good jobs and much needed tax revenue for the communities they serve, including Corpus Christi.”
The Justice Department document alleges that Citgo “has violated a wide range of environmental and worker safety regulations” — as recently as this year in some cases.
An inspector with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, found that the refinery had five releases of hydrofluoric acid (HF), a potentially lethal gas, between Feb. 11 and March 20, 2012. As reported last year by the Center and ABC News, the refinery had a major HF release in July 2009 that severely injured a worker and put the nearby Hillcrest neighborhood at risk.
Citgo told state regulators that only 30 pounds of the acid escaped plant boundaries. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board later estimated, however, that at least 4,000 pounds left the refinery and concluded that failures in a Citgo water system meant to contain HF had nearly led to a bigger release.
The 2012 HF releases occurred “because equipment deficiencies are not repaired in a safe and timely manner” and are evidence of “systemic failure,” the Justice Department document says. The document also cites incidents such as the “preventable” release of more than 142,000 pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere on Dec. 25 and 30, 2009.
On Thursday, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed fines totaling $66,500 against Citgo for five alleged violations related to an HF leak. “The employer did not have proper safeguards in place to protect employees from the release of toxic chemicals,” Michael Rivera, OSHA’s area director in Corpus Christi, said in a written statement.
Suzie Canales, executive director of Citizens for Environmental Justice in Corpus Christi, said she is disappointed that Citgo faces, at most, a fine of slightly more than $2 million for the 2007 Clean Air Act conviction. “It’s pocket change to them,” she said.
She also doesn’t understand why it’s taken more than five years for the company to be sentenced. “When you go that long, it sends a message to Citgo and others that it doesn’t matter if you violated the Clean Air Act — you’re going to get away with it,” Canales said.
In a related development Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans granted a petition seeking crime-victim status for 14 people who live near the refinery. The trial judge in the Citgo case, John D. Rainey, ruled last year that the residents didn’t qualify as victims under the Crime Victim’s Rights Act and therefore couldn’t testify at the company’s sentencing hearing because they hadn’t proven that emissions from the Citgo tanks were the “specific cause” of their alleged health problems, including shortness of breath, vomiting and dizziness.
The Fifth Circuit instructed Rainey to consider new arguments raised by the petition. “The judge needs to hear from these people to determine an appropriate sentence in the case,” said law professor Paul Cassell, who is representing the residents pro bono through the Appellate Clinic at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.
It's not yet clear, however, whether the residents will speak at next week's hearing.