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 United States. The case revolves around Venezuelan-owned Citgo Petroleum’s decade-long violation of the federal Clean Air Act at its refinery in Corpus Christi.
After seven years of waiting, Corpus Christi pollution victims finally learned what restitution they’ll be receiving from Citgo Petroleum Corp.: nothing. Last week, a federal district judge determined that residents of a neighborhood exposed to toxic chemicals from Citgo’s Corpus refinery weren’t due any compensation, including medical expenses or relocation costs.
Seven years after Citgo was convicted of environmental crimes in Corpus Christi, a federal judge has finally sentenced the company—at least partially. U.S. District Court Judge John D. Rainey fined the multi-national oil company a little more than $2 million Wednesday for violating the Clean Air Act at its Corpus Christi refinery. Prosecutors had argued the company should pay up to $2 billion.
In a blow to the residents who live near the Citgo refinery, the judge failed to put Citgo on any sort of probation and delayed setting restitution for the residents. The victims, who attribute a spectrum of health problems to exposure to the plant’s toxic emissions, are upset at the glacial pace of the case and a fine they consider a pittance for Citgo’s crimes.
“That is a punishment that does not fit the crime,” says Melissa Jarrell, a professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “What message does it send when a multibillion-dollar corporation receives a $2 million fine?”
Six years after Citgo Petroleum Corp. became the first major oil company to be criminally convicted by a jury for violating the Clean Air Act, the company may finally be sentenced this month. Residents who were exposed to harmful emissions from Citgo’s Corpus Christi refinery have been awaiting a sentence. The hearing in federal court opened last week in Corpus with their testimonies.
The hearing marks the first time that victims of an air pollution crime have been awarded protection under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and allowed to share testimony in court. The Citgo case could open the door for other air pollution victims to claim that status in environmental justice cases around the country, says Melissa Jarrell, a professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
The unusually long sentencing hearing is scheduled to continue through the end of the month. In 2007, Citgo was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act after an inspection revealed that the company had been illegally storing oil in two uncovered tanks for 10 years, and, unbeknownst to the residents, releasing harmful chemicals like benzene into the air. Residents of the fenceline communities surrounding the refinery, who attribute a spectrum of health problems to consistent and prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals, feel they’ve been denied justice. They are eager to see Citgo punished for its crimes, and are also seeking restitution from the company.