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Texas Victims Of Citgo's Air Pollution Denied Restitution After Waiting 7 Years

| by Jared Keever

A federal judge determined last week that victims of air pollution in Corpus Christi, Texas were not due any restitution from Citgo Petroleum Corp. 

The Texas Observer reports that Citgo was convicted in 2007 of violating the Clean Air Act for illegally storing oil in two uncovered tanks, thereby exposing nearby residents to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. Seven years later U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey finally sentenced the company for the violation, ordering them to pay $2 million in fines.

The original lawsuit sought $2 billion in fines according to Think Progress

“That is a punishment that does not fit the crime,” said Melissa Jarrell, a professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “What message does it send when a multibillion-dollar corporation receives a $2 million fine?”

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The fine was seen as small considering the Justice Department estimated Citgo had made roughly $1 billion in profits during the 10 years the oil was stored in the tanks. Still, there was hope that Rainey would allow for restitution to be paid to the victims.

Those hopes were dashed last week when he ruled that victims would not be paid anything. That was despite the Justice Department’s request that Citgo be required to setup two separate funds totaling $55 million to help those affected pay for relocation and future medical expenses.

The judge said that determining how much each victim was owed would “unduly delay the sentencing process” and “outweighs the need to provide restitution to any victims.”

Bill Miller, a retired EPA attorney who worked on the Citgo conviction, said the reasoning doesn’t make sense. 

“Had he come to that conclusion [seven] years ago, he might have something there,” he said. “But after you’ve unduly prolonged it for [seven] years, spending a little bit more time making a determination is not going to unduly prolong it.”

Asked to comment by the Texas Observer, the Justice Department issued a statement that read: “We are disappointed in the court’s decision, especially for the residents of the community surrounding the refinery who suffered as a result of Citgo’s crimes.”

Miller said it appears the Justice Department will not appeal the ruling — a move they would have to make in two weeks. He said if that is the case it does not bode well for environmental law in the country.

“If you’re not going to do anything about it then it behooves every large corporation who gets caught violating a complex statute like [the] Clean Air Act to go to trial and hide behind the complexity of it,” he said.

Sources: Texas Observer, Think Progress