Residents of Corpus Christi, Texas Verses Citgo For Violations of the Clean Air Act

Refinery Row in Corpus Christi, Texas is a 15-mile stretch of dense industrial developments, consisting mainly of petrochemical-related facilities. Amid the jungle of pipes, tank farms and gas processing units, residential pockets survive. Residents have known for a while that chemicals have contaminated the air, soil and ground water in their area. Their burden is proving to regulatory bodies that their ailments which are often rare, debilitating and expensive to manage, are directly traceable to chemical plant accidents or reckless operational practices of the big industries surrounding them. The Curious Case of Hillcrest Corpus Christ vs. Citgo In 2007, a jury decided that Citgo Petroleum Corporation violated specific provisions of the Clean Air Act when it knowingly used uncovered tanks for oil storage, resulting in chemical contamination of the air. Residents suffered a host of unexplained ailments that they attributed to tank emissions, including benzene and other hazardous chemicals. In a precedent-setting decision, the judge agreed to grant crime-victim status to plaintiffs, paving the way for their victim impact statements to become part of the sentencing hearing. Refinery accident attorneys saw this case as an important milestone in environmental pollution litigation. Hillcrest residents had hoped to gain some compensation from Citgo that would cover medical screening amounting to $80,000 and an $11 million trust fund that would be disbursed for medical expenses and management of related health issues. Attorneys for the plaintiffs also asked Citgo for a $15 million buyout fund that would be used to compensate residents for their properties at fair market values and allow them to move away from Refinery Row. Instead, all they got was a seven-year delay in the sentencing phase and a paltry penalty imposed on an industry giant. On February 5, 2014, a Texas judge finally ruled that Citgo was liable for a fine of $2 million for felony criminal acts related to air pollution. For Venezuela-based Citgo, a company that likely earned $1 billion during the years it was found to be violating provisions of the Clean Air Act, $2 million is petty cash. The Justice Department tried to set the maximum penalty at $2 billion dollars based on estimates of profits generated by Citgo between 1994 to 2005, the years that the illegal tanks were in use. U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey ruled that convening a panel to assess Citgo’s gains during the years in question would only delay sentencing. Penalties were capped at $2 million. Judge Rainey may still impose additional penalties as he rules on restitution for residents of nearby homes who endured chemical exposure from Citgo tank emissions. Many of these residents awaiting compensation are elderly, suffer from chronic conditions and have limited financial recourse to move elsewhere. Citgo plans to appeal the decision. Important Takeaways The case of Corpus Christi vs. Citgo is yet to wrap up almost seven years after a jury verdict. However, the case can shine a light on the protracted process of environmental litigation for every Houston industrial accident attorney and others all over Texas, who are advocating for neighborhoods caught in the cross hair of big industries and pollution issues. Hillcrest residents suffered incontrovertible damage due to pollution caused by Citgo’s operations; that much is acknowledged by the Texas judicial system. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit asked Judge Rainey to consider new arguments brought up by the plaintiffs lawyers in a petition to grant crime victim status to 15 Hillcrest residents who suffered chronic ailments, including various forms of cancers and respiratory ailments. The decision may pave the way for others in similar situations to invoke the provisions of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act in environmental-impact cases. Contact a lawyer specializing in industrial accidents and environmental laws to understand your rights as one who has been affected by negligent and environmentally-unsound corporate practices.