Oil company poisons town; judge says it doesn’t owe its victims a penny
This is insane: In 2007, the Citgo refinery in Corpus Christi was found liable of endangering the lives of some 800 residents when it left two gigantic oil tanks uncovered, exposing people to cancer-causing air pollutants like benzene. After Citgo was convicted of both civil and criminal violations of the Clean Air Act — the first such criminal conviction for a major oil company — the U.S. Justice Department recommended that the company pay the maximum $2 billion in fines, including $30 million for relocation, medical expenses, and restitution for the victims. This February, seven years after the conviction, a federal judge slapped Citgo with a puny $2 million fine instead, including $45,000 for birds killed due to toxic exposure.
As for restitution for the people, here’s what the judge awarded them last week: $0. This, despite the fact that Corpus Christi residents were classified as crime victims, eligible for financial renewal under the Crime Victims Rights Act — the first such designation for victims of air pollution. Citgo reaped at least a $1 billion from the deadly storage tanks, but its victims will see none of that, thanks to this week’s ruling from U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey.
The Daily Beast’s Jedidiah Purdy sums it up well:
The Citgo case is a classic environmental injustice. The victims, as mentioned, are mainly poor and minority. But it’s even worse than that. When environmental harms violate the legal rights of powerless people, like the right to clean air, the legal system responds lamely compared to the protection it gives patent holders, elite investors—or companies like Citgo when, for instance, environmental protesters trespass on their property. The rights that should protect poor people downwind of a refinery get treated as lightweight compared to the right to operate, invest in, and profit from the refinery.
This environmental injustice is what I’ve been writing about over the past week at Grist. There are millions more people around America who live with the same health risks from facilities handling hazardous elements like benzene and worse. Those risks are unbalanced to the disadvantage of people of color and low income. When Purdy says the Corpus Christi victims are “mainly poor and minority,” this is exactly what he means:
Here is a map of where the Citgo refinery is located, and the houses situated within five miles of it, and a whole bunch of other chemical tanks:
Using EPA’s EJView mapping online application, we can view the racial, ethnic, and economic demographics of the area around the Citgo facility. The people are mostly Latino, many of whom speak English as their second language; and 40 percent of households bring home less than $25,000 a year. Check the breakdown:
Now consider the cluster of other nearby polluters that these residents have to contend with. This map (from the YourMapper online app) is based off of 2006 EPA data, and shows the facilities with toxic pollution emissions within 25 miles of the Citgo refinery in question:
This map shows facilities that release toxic chemicals, as tracked under the Clean Air Act, within 25 miles of the Citgo refinery:
This is what we mean when we talk about cumulative risks and burdens. The residents of these neighborhoods, who are the subjects of dynamic profiles like Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s “Life on Refinery Row” and the Texas Observer’s “Kochworld,” will go on paying for pollution with their health. It will be black and Latino residents who incur the worst of it, as they have since at least the late 1980s.
The judge in the Citgo case said that trying to figure out the financial amount that each resident deserved for their suffering would be too difficult, and he was correct. He was only wrong in his conclusion. Instead of coming up with something, he gave them nothing — not even funds to pay for annual cancer screenings as the plaintiffs requested. Contrast that with BP, a company that exposed Gulf Coast residents to oil and, as a form of redress, granted residents $105 million to build and expand health clinics. That’s a rather paltry sum in the larger scheme of BP’s disaster sins, but it is more than what is being offered to these Corpus Christi residents, which is a travesty.