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Friday, April 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Curbed Pollution Fine for Citgo Irks Some in Texas

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) - Over six years after a federal jury convicted Citgo Petroleum of refinery pollution that killed birds and sickened residents, a federal judge imposed a more-than $2 million fine, instead of the requested $2 billion.

U.S. District Judge John Rainey ordered the Venezuela-based oil company and subsidiary Citgo Refining & Chemicals Co. on Wednesday to each pay $500,000 for two violations of the Clean Air Act, plus $45,000 for misdemeanor violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

A jury convicted the company in June 2007 of illegally operating two uncovered tanks of oil and chemicals for at least eight years at its East Plant refinery in Corpus Christi.

Prosecutors say the tanks emitted benzene, a known carcinogen. Witnesses testified the emissions caused a strong odor that resulted in headaches and nosebleeds, among other things.

Rainey deemed at least 300 people who live near the refinery and claim injuries as crime victims in 2012.

Prosecutors had initially sought a $2 billion penalty because on estimates that the company made $1 billion from the refinery during the decade of violations, the Texas Observer reported.

Rainey nevertheless agreed to cap the Clean Air Act violations at $500,000 in 2012 - the maximum under federal law.

Citgo has steadfastly maintained its innocence with the claim that the tanks are not oil-water separators.

"Even though we believe Judge Rainey was fair in this sentencing process, Citgo intends to appeal because the prosecution unfairly characterized the two water equalization tanks as oil-water separators," the company said in a statement.

The victims and observers argue that the small penalty and slow pace of the case fail to effectively deter such environmental violations.

Melissa Jarrell, professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, told the Observer the punishment does not fit the crime.

"What message does it send when a multibillion-dollar corporation receives a $2 million fine?" Jarrell asked.

Rainey will rule on victim restitution within 90 days, prosecutors said.

Follow @davejourno
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