How a Convicted Polluter, with Help from a Texas Judge, Avoided Paying Back its Victims

Categories: Environment

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Cristian
Companies accused of poisoning our air and water typically pay a fine then move on, rarely becoming official criminals. If you want to get arrested for spewing something into the air, you're much better off blowing weed smoke on your front porch than benzene from smoke stacks.

But in 2007, a Houston oil company became a rare exception, when it was criminally convicted for polluting the air in Corpus Christi. What does that mean? Not much, it turns out.

It took the Texas judge on the case seven years to hand down a sentence. He imposed a small fine but didn't include money for the victim's medical expenses, reasoning, in part, that figuring out an exact dollar amount would take too long. As a result, the people who waited seven years for their restitution will get no restitution.

Citgo Petroleum, based in Texas but a subsidiary of a Venezuelan corporation, was accused by the Department of Justice of operating two massive oil-water separators with no emission controls of any kind. For 10 years, from the 1990s until 2003, people in the Hillcrest neighborhood were breathing toxic chemicals like benzene.

Most companies facing similar accusations would agree to negotiate with the DoJ in the civil courts and pay a settlement to avoid bad publicity. But Citgo refused. To this day, in fact, Citgo is fighting the government on a technicality, denying that its tanks are oil-water separators. With Citgo unwilling to budge, the case ultimately ended up in a criminal court and was tried before a jury. In 2007, the jurors found Citgo guilty. It was the first time that a corporation has been criminally convicted under the Clean Air Act.

The Feds wanted Citgo to put $25 million into a fund to cover medical and moving expenses for some 800 victims, similar to the $20 billion fund that BP agreed to set aside in 2010 for victim of its massive spill. But on April 30, Judge John D. Rainey ruled that that the victims won't get restitution. He argued it was too hard to prove that their ailments were caused by those specific tanks.

"Air cases are exceptional because it's so hard to prove that that molecule was responsible for that person's illness," explains Melissa Jarrell, a criminology professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi who closely followed the trial.

But he could have had a jury panel figure out an appropriate dollar amount, making the scientific burden of proof lower. He decided against that, though, ruling that doing so would "unduly delay the sentencing process." The need for a speedy ruling "outweighs the need to provide restitution to any victims," he wrote.

This predictably infuriated Bill Miller, a retired Environmental Protection Agency lawyer who worked on the investigation. The ruling, he told InsideClimateNewsrecently, "basically emasculates environmental crime prosecution in the United States completely."

But environmental crime prosecution is already pretty weak. Jarrell, the crimonologist, co-authored a study last month showing that out of 972 environmental crime cases in the United States in the past 11 years, only three percent identified victims of the pollution. The victims were mostly all people who had been killed or immediately injured on the job.

Rainey did agree to fine Citgo $2,045,000.00, a fraction of $2 billion originally requested by the feds.

"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," Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement. The feds haven't announced yet if they plan to appeal.

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21 comments
bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

I like the excuse he gave for why he didn't do the right thing - because it would be too hard.  That speaks volumes about his Republican character.

dingo
dingo

The main factor here was that the Government did a lousy job connecting the tanks in violation with the specific injuries incurred.

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Before the Court could make such a determination, the Government would have to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: (1) the claimant was exposed to emissions from Tanks 116 and 117 between January 1994 and May 2003; (2) he or she suffered an actual loss as a direct and proximate result of exposure to Tanks 116 and 117; and (3) potential alternative causes, such as emissions from other refineries or potential emissions from CITGO not related to Tanks 116 and 117, can be excluded. The Government must also prove (4) an accurate computation of any loss. The Court previously recognized that “not one single medical record documenting more than 950 office visits ever diagnosed chemical exposure in this case.” (Dkt. No. 737 at 8 (emphasis in original).) Assuming a victim could prove that they had developed a medically diagnosable condition that was caused by chemical exposure, they would still be required to trace their exposure specifically back to Tanks 116 and 117 in order to be entitled to restitution for related medical expenses....

.....at the end of the October 2013 presentencing hearings, the Court asked the Government and the Community Members to identify “the type of evidence that would be relied upon to establish a connection, a causal connection between the various medical problems and the two tanks.” (10/31/2013 Tr. 112:24–113:8.) However, the supplemental memoranda they submitted in response to the Court’s request contain no reference to additional evidence in support of their claims for future medical expenses. 

http://thinkprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/RaineyOpinion.pdf


And now you know the rest of the story.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

Is the judge on OOPS' payroll, too?  Enquiring yentas want to know. 

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

Sean Penn was unavailable for comment.

P1Gunter
P1Gunter

Wasn't this a part of why 7-11 dropped Citgo as its supplier a decade or so ago? This and the Venezuelan ties because Hugo Chavez kept trashing America.

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

@bvckvs Confirmed by a Democrat Senate.  Because opposing his confirmation would have been too hard.

CashLuck
CashLuck

Please explain what brings you to believe he was a corrupt lawyer?

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@UnCoverUp_2

Your majority Senate Democrat party let you down on that one, eh?

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Myrna

The money would eventually come from the country of Venezuela. Why would Perry be interested in protecting a socialist paradise?

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@P1Gunter 

No, the original contract expired and the two companies could not agree on a new a contract.

The original contract, IIRC, was done prior to CITGO being purchased by PDVSA.  CITGO was looking for a brand outlet and 7-11 was looking for a reliable supplier.

halldecker
halldecker

@TheRuddSki Good try.  US Senators in Texas must approve and pass to the President for nomination all Federal Judges.  For decades, both Senators have been Repubs.  When the Pres is a Dem,  the senior US House member from Texas usually approves the candidate.


With the exception of the Clinton years,  and most of the Obama,  when Repubs routinely blocked confirmation of hundreds who were nominated by a Dem President,  almost all the Federal Judges were and are staunch Repubs.

Good try.


Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@TheRuddSki I would bet OOPS has no problem using socialist oil.

halldecker
halldecker

@TheRuddSki 

I wondered what the current stats are ... this for the Fifth Circuit, the Appeals Court between Federal District (trial) judges and the Supreme Court:

current 17 judge slots,  10 appointed by Repubs,  5 Dems,  2 vacancies that Repubs won't let the Senate vote on.

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Found this from USA Today on Federal District Judges:


Republican nominees will maintain an outsize influence because of the number of judges over 65 who take senior status and continue to decide cases. While the number of active judges are tied at 390, there are 322 senior judges nominated by Republican presidents — more than half named by Reagan — compared with 233 Democrats.

 ------------

Despite a Dem Pres for what will be 16 years at the end of the Pres term,  Dems are finally even with Repubs on current Judges,  about 400 each. Senior (semi-retired) Judges keep working 'cause Repubs in the Senate won't let a new one be appointed.



TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@halldecker

Thanks, so it actually is a Bush criminal regime deal.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Myrna

Both countries have oil.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@Myrna

Well, if you consider Canada socialist, you might have a point.

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