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For Immediate Release: Monday, July 21, 1997

For More Information Contact: TLPJ, 202-797-8600
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Environmental Groups and Local Residents Sue Crown Central Petroleum for Air Pollution Violations

Lawsuit Seeks Penalties for Over 10,000 Violations of the Clean Air Act and an Injunction to Prevent Future Violations

A coalition of environmental groups and citizens represented by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) filed suit today in federal court against Crown Central Petroleum for thousands of violations of the Clean Air Act at Crown's Pasadena, Texas refinery. The coalition includes Texans United Education Fund (Texans United), the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and four individuals who live near the Crown plant. The lawsuit seeks penalties from Crown for more than 10,000 past violations, an injunction to prevent future violations, and attorney's fees and costs. The Clean Air Act authorizes civil penalties in the amount of $25,000 per day for each violation.

"Crown has been spewing hazardous chemicals into Pasadena's air for years," said TLPJ Environmental Enforcement Attorney Mark Wenzler, lead counsel for the coalition. "This illegal pollution must stop. It's time for Crown to comply with the law," he said.

The complaint alleges that Crown has repeatedly violated federal air pollution limits for sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Crown's violations are the result of frequent equipment breakdowns at the refinery, which often result in massive releases of sulfur dioxide into the surrounding community. Since 1992, Crown's equipment breakdowns have occurred on more than 400 days. During a one-week period in late December 1996, Crown released 59 tons of sulfur dioxide into Pasadena's air. In late April of this year, Crown released 72 tons of sulfur dioxide during a plant upset. Overall, Crown exceeded federal pollution limits for sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide more than 10,000 hours between May 1992 and December 1996, the time period covered by the lawsuit.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed sulfur dioxide as an extremely hazardous substance. When inhaled, it can cause serious respiratory problems, such as wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and other reductions in lung function. EPA recently found that short-term exposure to high sulfur dioxide emissions can present an "imminent and substantial endangerment to public health" for people with asthma.

TLPJ sent a notice to Crown on May 16, 1997 announcing its intention to file a complaint within 60 days on behalf of the citizens' coalition. The complaint was filed today in U.S. District Court in Houston, where Texans United's Executive Director Rick Abraham led a group of concerned area residents in a news conference in front of the courthouse, calling on Crown to comply with the law. "Crown's pollution endangers hundreds of Pasadena families. We intend to make Crown act responsibly toward its neighbors," he said.

TLPJ cooperating counsel Michael A. Caddell of Houston's Caddell & Chapman, said, "This lawsuit sends a message to polluters up and down the Houston Ship Channel that citizens will hold them accountable for their failure to comply with our environmental laws."

Residents of the Pasadena neighborhood closest to Crown have reported that pollution from Crown often hangs over their homes in a yellow fog that stinks of sulfur. Texans United member Ranford Denoon, a pipe fabricator who has worked at Crown, has lived a few blocks from the plant for 20 years. "The sulfur pollution burns my skin and eyes, gives me terrible headaches, and the smell is unbearable. I have worked at many refineries around the country, and Crown is by far the dirtiest. It seems to have a major equipment breakdown every other day," he said.

Sierra Club member Carma Garrett visits her mother a few blocks from Crown twice a week. "The pollution smell from Crown is sometimes so bad that I have to leave the area."

"Before moving to Pasadena, my daughter had no asthma problems," said NRDC member Mary McKay. "However, over the past eight years she developed asthma, and I believe that Crown's pollution was a contributing factor to asthma problems she has had. Crown and other polluters should realize the impact their pollution has on our families."

The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) has previously penalized Crown for excess sulfur emissions, and on July 10, 1997 issued a Notice of Violation to Crown that cites many of the same violations raised in the citizens coalition's May 16, 1997 notice letter to Crown.

Neil Carman of the Sierra Club noted that TNRCC is unlikely to make Crown comply with its permits. "TNRCC has done little more than periodically rattle its saber at Crown. Each time, Crown gets off with either a warning or a modest penalty, and it keeps polluting. We intend to do what TNRCC should be doing - make Crown comply with the law," he said.

The lawsuit against Crown is one of a series of suits being filed by TLPJ's Environmental Enforcement Project to make polluters comply with the law and pay for violating it. Under the citizen suit provisions of the Clean Air Act, if federal and state governments fail to file a lawsuit and enforce the law diligently, affected citizens can enforce the law by filing suit in federal court.