Texans Get Victim Status in Citgo Emissions Case
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) - A federal judge granted victim status to about 300 Texans who say they were exposed to harmful fumes from a Citgo oil refinery.
Citgo Petroleum and Citgo Refining and Chemicals have already been held liable in complaints filed by the federal government. A jury found the companies guilty of violating the Clean Air Act with regard to two refinery tanks that leaked benzene from January 1994 to May 2003 because of inadequate emission-control equipment.
In a separate bench trial, Citgo was convicted of deliberately letting birds die in those same tanks. Senior U.S. District Judge John Rainey upheld Citgo's convictions for violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act earlier this month.
Despite these findings, the court previously refused to grant victim status to a group of 300 Corpus Christi community members under the Crime Victims' Rights Act.
"In reviewing the scientific evidence before it, the court recognized that 'none of the medical records documenting more than 950 office visits diagnose[d] chemical exposure and none of the other medical records even mention chemical odors,'" Rainey wrote. "The court further found that because the monitoring data from the Corpus Christi area did not show readings of volatile organic compounds that exceeded state and federal regulatory levels, there was no proof that the concentration of chemicals in the emissions from tanks 116 and 117 rose to the level necessary to cause health effects. Because many of the alleged victims were either elderly persons who struggled with a number of common ailments, had serious medical conditions, and/or admitted to smoking cigarettes, and because all the alleged victims also lived near a group of oil refineries in Corpus Christi, the court concluded that the evidence offered could not establish that the alleged victims' ailments were caused by tanks 116 and 117 and not by one or more of these myriad of other factors."
The community members gave it another shot in July, proffering two new arguments to support victim designation, even without medically documented physical injuries.
Rainey denied their motion as untimely on Aug. 22, but the 5th Circuit revived the issue after finding there was no such time limit.
Rainey reversed his decision in a 10-page order issued Friday.
"The court is now persuaded that it applied the incorrect legal standard when it determined that the community members must provide documentary medical evidence confirming injury or illness due to chemical exposure in order to qualify as victims under the CVRA," Rainey wrote. "Instead the court finds that testimony by the community members and other witnesses that they suffered symptoms such as burning eyes, bad taste in the mouth, nose burning, sore throat, skin rashes, shortness of breath, vomiting, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and headaches is sufficient to constitute 'harm' under the CVRA.
"The court further finds that just because monitoring data from the Corpus Christi area did not show readings of volatile organic compounds that exceeded state and federal regulatory levels during the time period in question does not mean that the community members' health effects were not caused by tanks 116 and 117."
As recognized victims under the act, the community members can seek restitution. Rainey's order permits them to submit a sentencing memorandum regarding proposed medical monitoring and a buy-out of certain residential properties.