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Refinery Fights for Its Tax Breaks

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (CN) - A state judge temporarily stopped the Wood River Oil Refinery's challenge of an expected property tax increase, while the court decides whether two state agencies helped the refinery in violation of Illinois law.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled there are enough questions to "put a freeze" on further action until another hearing.

Local governments in and around Roxana filed a lawsuit in Sangamon County, claiming that refinery owners, the state Pollution Control Board and the state Environmental Protection Agency shut them out of decisions.

The plaintiffs claim the tax breaks could cost schools and other taxing bodies millions of dollars.

A $3.8 billion expansion of the refinery, owned by WRB Refining, is at the heart of the issue. The expansion is a joint venture of ConocoPhillips and Cenovus Energy.

Those businesses sought to stop an expected increase in the plant's assessed valuation by claiming that most its operation is dedicated to pollution control.

A pollution control facility designation would bring significantly smaller assessment increases - lower property taxes.

Plaintiffs - the Village of Roxana and the school districts in Roxana, Wood River and East Alton - claim they were not initially aware of the defendants' actions because the two state agencies did not provide proper information and public access to meetings, in violation of the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act. Therefore, the plaintiffs had no opportunity to dispute that $3 billion of the $3.8 billion of the expansion was dedicated to pollution control.

A hearing in the case has been scheduled for April 25.

It's not the first time the Wood River Refinery has been the center of controversy. On March 20 this year the Village of Roxana sued the refinery owners in Madison County Court, claiming widespread pollution caused by leaks from the refinery's pipelines.

In 2008, the nearby Village of Hartford filed a class action against Shell and 27 other defendants, claiming the refinery's releases led to unsafe levels of benzene and other chemicals that contaminated the town. That class action has been settled.

Several individuals in the area have filed lawsuits in recent months claiming that the releases of benzene and other chemicals have caused health problems.

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