Oil refineries accused of poisoning neighbors want children removed from suit

David Yates Jun. 21, 2007, 2:35am

Justices on the Ninth Court of Appeals will entertain oral arguments
from the Premcor Refining Group and Motiva Enterprises on July 7. The
oil giants' lawyers submitted a request for a Writ of Mandamus in
hopes of removing several children from a class action lawsuit
accusing them of releasing harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.

A Writ of Mandamus is issued by a superior court to compel a lower
court to perform its statutory duties.

In their request for the Writ, defendants Motiva and Premcor write
that "the trial court clearly abused its discretion to dismiss the
minor plaintiffs' claims for lack of standing."

The case stems from a personal injury suit filed back in October of
2004 by Crystal Faulk against Premcor, Motiva, Huntsman Petrochemical
Corp. and several individual plant operators. The Port Arthur woman
claimed the refineries were releasing more emissions than they were
reporting, in turn causing her young son's asthmatic condition to

Since that time, the isolated complaint has blossomed into a massive
class-action suit naming numerous plaintiffs. They include a host of
children, categorized by the Port Arthur neighborhood in which they
reside. Represented are groups from West Side, Marion Anderson, El
Vista Roosevelt, Lakeside, Port Acres, East Side and others.

The suit now names more than three dozen additional defendants as
well, including the Chevron, Texaco and Mobil oil companies.

The suit, which has been working its way through Judge Gary
Sanderson's 60th District Court for years without a trial date, was
spawned by a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
against Huntsman Petrochemical in 1998.

According to a press release and the state's petition posted on the
attorney general's Web site, Abbott charged Huntsman with frequent
violations of the Texas Clean Air Act.

The company's lawyers contested the attorney general's allegations for
nearly five years before finally settling with the state for $9
million, plus $375,000 in attorney's fees in March 2003. Huntsman
admitted no guilt, opting to pay the penalty rather than continue
endlessly litigating with Abbott.

"The defendant admits no liability and is settling this lawsuit due to
the costs, risks and delay of litigation and to buy its peace," the
settlement agreement wrote.

Yet Huntsman's high-priced "peace" was short-lived. The judgment
attracted the attention of Jefferson County plaintiffs' lawyers, and a
little over a year after entering into the $9 million agreement the
company was back in court.

Faulk and her lawyers, Thomas J. Pearson and Cimron Campbell, drew
heavily upon Abbott's findings, crafting a civil suit that mirrored
the past allegations against Huntsman.

"In addition to the heroic attempt by the attorney general to control
the operation of Huntsman Petrochemical, the federal government,
acting through the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern
District of Texas, has also attempted to force (the company) to abide
by the law and cease abusing the environment surrounding the Huntsman
facility on Highway 73," the plaintiff's original petition stated.

The original suit dedicates 40 pages to the allegedly wrongful conduct
of Huntsman Petrochemical and only two pages to the other six

However, by the time the mounting suit reached its pinnacle, the
plaintiffs' seventh amended petition named 41 defendants, blanketing
Golden Triangle oil refineries with the charge of purposely poisoning
their neighbors while fraudulently concealing emissions.

"The cause of action in question arises from the unauthorized,
un-permitted, and negligent releases of noxious fumes, vapors, odors
and hazardous substances by the named defendants, compounded by
fraudulent representations to regulators and to the public concerning
such releases," the seventh-amended petition stated. "These toxic
substances have unlawfully intruded and trespassed onto the
residential properties occupied by the plaintiffs."

The refineries employ thousands of local residents and contribute millions of dollars to the Jefferson County tax rolls.

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