In the latest iteration of a Texas public official denying the negative effects of harmful pollutants on people and the environment, the state’s chief toxicologist, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, said that since people spend most of their time indoors there’s no reason to be concerned about dangerous levels of ozone, a pollutant that contributes to the formation of smog.
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.
In the winter of 2008, a good portion of the world’s only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes starved to death. The majestic white birds, which are nearly the size of a Smart Car when they unfurl their black-tipped wings, were dropping dead along the Texas Gulf Coast. That winter was one of the driest the state has ever seen, and a lack of freshwater in the whoopers’ habitat near Aransas Pass resulted in a choked food supply and 23 whooper casualties. It was the largest single-winter decline in the species’ population, and admirers of the imposing bird came together to protect the fragile species.
A year later, a coalition of environmentalists, businesses and local governments sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, blaming the state agency for the unprecedented spike in whooper deaths. The group, called the Aransas Project, claimed the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing too much water to be withdrawn from the two river basins that feed the whoopers’ habitat. The group argued that two of the whoopers’ dietary staples—blue crabs and wolfberries—had dwindled from lack of freshwater inflow into the estuaries of San Antonio Bay.
In mid-March, federal District Court Judge Janis Jack ruled that TCEQ’s inattention to the whoopers was responsible for the 23 deaths. That amounted to 8.5 percent of the wild flock, which nests and breeds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and winters in Texas’ Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Jack ordered TCEQ to stop issuing any new water rights and told the agency to write a habitat conservation plan to ensure enough freshwater reaches the coast. (TCEQ quickly secured a stay from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.)
If Jack’s ruling stands on appeal, it could upend Texas’ system of allocating water rights.
Three months ago, Melanie Oldham moved from Angleton to a tiny old home in downtown Freeport, a southeast Texas town that lies in the shadows of petrochemical plants. She began filling a spare room with posters, photos, newspaper clippings, reports and books about one of the town’s most notorious polluters, Gulf Chemical & Metallurgical Corporation—a reading room for the community. Her home’s proximity to the company, and to other plants like Dow Chemical’s massive campus, also allows her to claim legal status in challenging the plant’s permits.
Not that many years ago, Oldham enjoyed a life of relative luxury. She was married to a Dow chemical engineer and lived in a spacious home. Now she works as a physical therapist, making enough money to support her real passion: trying to force Freeport’s chemical companies and refineries to clean up.