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Oil Co. Found Liable for Clean Air Act Violations

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Murphy Oil USA has violated the Clean Air Act 21 times since 2004 with excessive emissions from its refinery in Meraux, La., a federal judge ruled Thursday.

The ruling for Concerned Citizens Around Murphy cited the 5th Circuit's ruling last October that Murphy Oil and other companies can be sued for damages from Hurricane Katrina because their emissions of greenhouse gasses contributed to global warming.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said the Louisiana nonprofit demonstrated that Murphy Oil has violated the Clean Air Act at least 21 times, "and that unless some action is taken to prevent the illegal conduct, there is a real threat" that the company will continue to exceed federal emissions limits. As such, an injunction is "an appropriate remedy," she said.

Concerned Citizens, which represents people living in the same neighborhood as the refinery, said Murphy Oil repeatedly violated hourly and yearly emission limits set by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and failed to maintain certain pollution-control devices.

The LDEQ has issued three air-quality emission permits to Murphy, setting emission limits for the Meraux refinery. Murphy admits to having exceeded its LDEQ permit limitations 19 times between April 30, 2004 and Jan. 13, 2009. The discharges ranged from 43 pounds of hydrogen sulfide in 2004 to 29,513 pounds of the compound in 2006.

The parties disputed whether five other emissions violated federal law. Judge Vance said two of them did, ruling for Murphy on just three of the 24 alleged violations.

For each admitted violation, Murphy had to file a written report with the LDEQ. In all 19 reports, the oil company indicated that the emissions were "preventable," meaning they weren't due to emergency situations.

Concerned Citizens said its members' lifestyles have been limited by the black smoke, flames, corrosive dust and a foul odor from the refinery.

Murphy didn't deny these allegations, but said the alleged injury is not traceable to specific permit violations.

Vance called this argument "wide off the mark," saying the plaintiff "need not pinpoint the exact times of violations and link its members' injuries to permit violations at those times."

Instead, it "may satisfy the traceability requirement by presenting circumstantial evidence that a 'pollutant causes or contributes to the kinds of injuries alleged,'" Vance wrote, citing the 5th Circuit's ruling in Comer v. Murphy Oil.

She said Murphy doesn't deny that emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds or hydrogen sulfide can produce noxious odors, and "it admits to permit violations with respect to all of these compounds."

"[T]he issue is not whether a particular compound from Murphy's stacks reached [the plaintiff's] members' olfactory nerves on a particular date," Vance wrote. "Instead, the issue is whether [Murphy's] emissions of NOx and SO2 contribute to foul odors."

Murphy faces fines of $682,500 or more for the Clean Air Act violations, the Times-Picayune reports, and might be ordered to take actions to stop future violations.

A trial is tentatively scheduled for April 5.

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