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Environmental groups announce multi-million dollar settlement with Houston-area refinery

The settlement will end a "citizen suit" against Pasadena Refining System that alleges years of air pollution violations. Under the Clean Air Act, citizens may sue companies if government regulators fail to act.

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* Correction appended.

Another major energy company operating in Texas has agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups over excessive air pollution.

Environment Texas and the Sierra Club announced Thursday that they have filed a proposed consent decree that would require Pasadena Refining System— a subsidiary of Brazilian state-controlled oil company Petrobras — to install new pollution control equipment at its Houston-area refinery to reduce emissions of asthma-inducing particulate matter and other pollutants, including during hurricanes. The company, commonly referred to as PRSI, also was ordered to pay a $350,000 civil penalty to the federal government and $3.175 million to the Houston-Galveston Area Council to establish a grant program to help local schools and governments replace traditional vehicles with electric or hybrid models.

A federal court still must approve the agreement.

“We welcome PRSI’s decision to resolve this case rather than spend years litigating it in court,” said Brian Zabcik, a clean air advocate at Environment Texas. “Pasadena and Galena Park residents will benefit twice. Refinery upgrades will reduce illegal air pollution, while the electric vehicles project will further improve air quality.”

In a statement, PRSI said "Pasadena Refining is confident that the settlement agreement with Environment Texas and Sierra Club is in the best interest of all parties, and will provide a direct benefit to our community. Our priorities have always been on safety, and on reliable and efficient operations ... as well as all local, state and federal regulations. Through this agreement, we commit to further improvements for the facility and its operations, both of which are part of our objectives."

The environmental groups sued PRSI last year alleging it harmed the health of nearby residents by repeatedly exceeding hourly and annual limits set in its state-issued air permits for fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and other air pollutants over a five-year period.

It was the fourth so-called “citizen suit” alleging illegal air emissions the environmental groups filed against major energy companies operating in Texas since 2008. Under the Clean Air Act, citizens may sue companies if government regulators fail to act. Two other lawsuits against Shell Oil Company and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company resulted in similar multi-million dollar settlements. ExxonMobil, which the groups sued in 2010, chose to go to trial but was ordered to pay nearly $20 million last year for spewing millions of pounds of excess air pollution from its Houston-area industrial facilities.

A Texas Tribune investigation last year found that thousands of such rogue releases occur every year in Texas and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rarely levies penalties in response, reserving them for only the most egregious events. Last week, commissioners approved an agreed order assessing more than $907,191 in penalties against PRSI for air and water quality violations.

In a news release Thursday, Environment Texas and Sierra Club noted that the $27.8 million in settlement money it secured in lawsuits against Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil “is more than double the $13.5 million in penalties assessed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) against all sources of air pollution in Texas combined for emission events in the state from 2011 through 2016.”

The century-old Pasadena refinery, which Petrobras put up for sale earlier this year amid a wide-ranging corruption probe into the company by the Brazilian federal government, has long been the target of resident complaints and has been the site of multiple fires and explosions in recent years. In 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited PRSI for multiple safety violations.

Harris County, which has also sued the company alleging violation of environmental laws, is still in negotiations with the company and the state, said Rock Owens, chief of the environmental group in the Harris County Attorney’s Office.

Disclosure: ExxonMobil has been a been financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the company Petrobras.

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