TLPJ AND ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS REACH LANDMARK SETTLEMENT WITH CROWN CENTRAL PETROLEUM IN AIR POLLUTION CITIZEN SUIT
Citizen Suit Settlement is First in Texas under Federal Clean Air Act
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) and a coalition of environmental groups have won the first citizen suit settlement ever against a corporate polluter in Texas under the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) The landmark settlement, filed on February 9, 2001 in U.S. District Court in Houston, will require the Crown Central Petroleum Corporation to pay a total of $1.6 million in penalties to the government. In addition, the settlement will force Crown to pay even more if monitoring by TLPJ and the environmental coalition shows that Crown releases additional air pollutants in the future.
The settlement will end the cutting-edge citizen suit against Crown, which charged the company with more than 15,000 hours of air violations at its Pasadena, Texas, refinery. The CAA allows citizens to sue polluters when state regulators fail to enforce the environmental laws, but no previous citizen suit had ever been successfully prosecuted in Texas under the statute.
"This is a major victory for citizen enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act," said TLPJ Environmental Enforcement Director Jim Hecker. "This settlement is a huge victory for Texas and for the whole country, because ordinary citizens were able to force the State to hold a corporation accountable under federal air pollution law," said Hecker.
"Crown was among the worst corporate air polluters in Houston, which now suffers some of the country's least breathable air," said lead counsel Ruth Ann Weidel of TLPJ. "Since 1992, Crown illegally released over 1,600 tons of sulfur dioxide - a massive amount of hazardous air pollutants - over schools and hundreds of houses neighboring the refinery," said Weidel.
"For the past decade, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) let Crown pollute illegally, and took significant enforcement action only after and because this citizen suit was filed," said Neil Carman, Clean Air Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that sulfur dioxide is acutely toxic and can cause serious harm to human health. Because Crown's pollution repeatedly caused overpowering as well as dangerous odors in the community, the settlement obligates Crown to request that the government allocate $100,000 of the penalties to the Harris County Pollution Control Department for air monitoring and sampling. The settlement also requires Crown to supply the County with reports of excess air emissions for the next two years to allow monitoring of Crown's compliance with air pollution laws.
In another precedent-setting victory for citizen enforcement of environmental laws, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reinstated this citizen suit last year, reversing the decision of the U.S. District Court in Houston, which had dismissed the suit. The appellate court specifically rejected Crown's argument that prior TNRCC administrative actions were an adequate enforcement response.
"The Fifth Circuit ruling prevents polluters from using sweetheart out-of-court deals with industry-friendly state regulators, such as the TNRCC, to block citizen enforcement of the obligation to comply with air pollution laws," said Hecker. "The reinstatement of the citizen suit set the stage for this settlement." TLPJ filed the citizen suit in 1997 on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups that included Texans United (TU), the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and people living near Crown. Crown's illegal releases were caused by repeated shutdowns and other avoidable problems with Crown's antiquated pollution control equipment.
"Citizens were forced to take action after years of violations, government inaction, and continuing pollution that agency officials would never have tolerated in their own communities," said TU Director Rick Abraham. "Crown was one of ten companies that, in 1997, joined then-Governor Bush's well-publicized 'voluntary compliance' program to reduce air pollution from older facilities like Crown's," stated Abraham. TNRCC recommended Crown for a "Clean Air Action" award in 1998 that said, "We're breathing easier thanks to you." "Crown got a sweetheart deal from TNRCC because it helped Governor Bush to promote his program," according to Abraham.
In response to this citizen suit, and pressure from EPA and the Harris County Pollution Control Department, TNRCC hit Crown in 1988 with the largest penalty in TNRCC's history, $1,055,425, for its air violations. Under the settlement, which must be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice and approved by the Court, Crown will receive credit for the fines it has already paid to the government as a result of the suit.
In addition to Weidel and Hecker, TLPJ's distinguished legal team includes Mike Caddell and Joe Phillips of Houston's Caddell and Chapman and Nancy Marks of NRDC.
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice is the only national public interest law firm dedicated to using trial lawyers' skills and resources to advance the public good. Founded in 1982, TLPJ utilizes a nationwide network of more than 2,400 outstanding trial lawyers to pursue precedent-setting and socially significant litigation. It has a wide-ranging litigation docket in the areas of environmental protection, toxic torts, consumer rights, worker safety, civil rights and liberties, and access to the courts. TLPJ is the principal project of The TLPJ Foundation, a not-for-profit membership organization. It has offices in Washington, DC, and Oakland, CA. TLPJ's State Coordinator for Texas is Scott Hendler, 512-473-3672.