WASHINGTON - A federal grand jury in Corpus Christi, Texas, returned a 10-count indictment today, charging Citgo Petroleum Corporation, its subsidiary, Citgo Refining and Chemicals Co., and the environmental manager at its Corpus Christi East Plant Refinery with criminal violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), the Justice Department announced.
Citgo was indicted on two counts of operating their refinery in Corpus Christi in violation of the National Emission Standard for Benzene Waste Operations and two counts of operating open top tanks as oil water separators without first installing the emission controls required by federal and state regulations. The CAA regulations require Citgo to control the emission of benzene from waste water produced at the refinery.
The indictment also charges the refinery’s environmental manager, Philip Vrazel, with failing to identify in a report filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for the year 2000 all of the points in the refinery wastewater system where a potentially harmful chemical, benzene, was generated. An accurate report is required by regulations to be filed with the TCEQ annually.
Benzene is a hazardous air pollutant found to cause cancer in people exposed to small amounts of the chemical. Congress passed the CAA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prescribed regulations governing the operation of refineries to limit the amount of benzene that can potentially be emitted to the atmosphere at such facilities. According to the indictment, Citgo operated its Corpus Christi refinery in 2000 with more than 57 megagrams of benzene in waste streams that were exposed to the air. A megagram is equal to one metric ton. Federal regulations limit refineries to operating with no more than six megagrams of benzene in their exposed waste streams. Citgo is also charged with operating in 2001 with more than seven megagrams of benzene in its exposed waste streams.
Regulations governing the construction and operation of new sources of hazardous air pollutants require oil water separators to be fitted with emission control devices to prevent the release of benzene and other harmful chemicals into the environment. According to the indictment, Citgo used two large open top tanks as oil water separators between January 1994 and May 2003 without the required emission controls. During an unannounced inspection in March 2002, TCEQ inspectors found approximately 4.5 million gallons of oil in the two open top tanks.
According to the indictment, Citgo Refining and Vrazel are also facing five counts of violating the MBTA for the illegal taking of protected birds. The birds were found coated with oil as a result of landing in the open top tanks. The tanks attract the birds and, thus, must be fitted with nets or other equipment to prevent the birds from entering or landing in the oil. The MBTA implements international treaties that protect birds which migrate between countries by requiring permits and placing limits on the taking of certain species.
If convicted, Citgo faces fines of up to $500,000 or twice the gross economic gain (whichever is greater) and five years of probation. Vrazel faces fines of up to $500,000 and up to five years in prison.
This case is being prosecuted by Senior Litigation Counsel Howard P. Stewart of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and William R. Miller, special assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. The criminal case is the result of a joint investigation by the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
An indictment contains only allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.