Under The Volcano

Crown Central Petroleum spews, sputters and flares up. Neighbors of the plant view it uneasily, never quite sure when it's going to blow.

Abraham pored over Crown's data and discovered more than 10,000 hours of Clean Air Act violations for sulfur dioxide and the fuel gas standard for hydrogen sulfide (which becomes sulfur dioxide in combustion processes). Looking to meet with the families living near Crown, he posted English- and Spanish-language flyers in the neighborhood asking, "Are you sick and tired of breathing POLLUTED and BAD SMELLING AIR?"

The presence of 40 or so people in the cafeteria-sized meeting room at the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International union hall provided an answer. At Abraham's request, Crown sent a representative who caused a stir by bringing a cameraman to videotape the proceedings. Residents wanted to talk, not perform.

The distrust was mutual. Company officials believed that Abraham wasn't the environmentalist he said he was but rather a shill for the union, which was in the midst of a nasty labor dispute with Crown. The company had locked out 252 unionized employees 15 months earlier, accusing them of acts of "sabotage" in the plant amid stalled contract talks. The AFL-CIO retaliated by putting the company on its boycott list. Days before meeting the Pasadena residents, Abraham had confronted Crown's chairman at a shareholders' meeting in Maryland. The fact that he now was holding his gathering at the Local 4-227 hall only confirmed Crown's fears.

Pasadena "is here because of those chemical plants," says Bill McCoy, the chamber of commerce president.
Deron Neblett
Pasadena "is here because of those chemical plants," says Bill McCoy, the chamber of commerce president.
Mayor John Manlove doesn't like Crown messing with Pasadena's image.
Deron Neblett
Mayor John Manlove doesn't like Crown messing with Pasadena's image.

"Did you know that Texans United was paid by the union to create environmental issues during the labor campaign?" asks spokesman Hicks.

Abraham freely admits that he received a contribution from the union but says his crusade against the company began independently of the labor dispute. He wanted to see union members return to work to reverse what he saw as worsening pollution under inexperienced replacement workers.

"We were natural allies," he says.

In May 1997, Texans United, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a handful of Pasadena residents served Crown with a notice of intent to sue for violations of the Clean Air Act. The coalition was represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

Things started heating up for Crown on a variety of fronts. In June, scores of Pasadena residents sued the company, alleging that its operations had caused ill health, severe emotional distress and reduction in property values. The company also got hit with a federal discrimination suit by female and African-American employees from its Pasadena and Tyler refineries.

The suit contemplated by Abraham and his coalition was made possible under the federal Clean Air Act, which gives citizens legal recourse if they find that regulators are failing to uphold the law. In a move that environmentalists suspected was designed to preempt their suit, the TNRCC in July notified Crown that it would begin an enforcement action if the company did not address violations uncovered during an inspection five months earlier.

"Crown basically begged the TNRCC to slap them in the face and get an enforcement action going. Maybe they thought they could get a better deal," Carman says. TNRCC lawyer Lisa Dyar says talks with Crown had commenced before the environmentalists threatened the company with litigation.

The intervention of the TNRCC did indeed derail the lawsuit filed in the court of U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore. On August 3, 1998, Gilmore dismissed the suit, ruling that it would be "duplicative and potentially disruptive" because the TNRCC was pursuing action against the company.

Abraham groused about a "sweetheart deal."

The TNRCC wasn't winning much praise from its colleagues in the regulatory community. In July 1998, the agency and Crown agreed on a $677,000 fine and actions to get the plant into compliance. Abraham, who estimated that Crown had gained some $14 million in economic benefit by polluting and not upgrading equipment, prodded the EPA to intervene.

"Every day that EPA delays taking action against Crown means that more Pasadena residents are exposed to unhealthful levels of sulfur dioxide," he wrote in a July 13, 1998, letter to the agency's regional administrator, Gregg Cooke.

Cooke passed on concerns of his own to the TNRCC's general counsel.

"The Agreed Order fails to reflect the economic benefit that Crown has gained through its years of noncompliance," Cooke wrote on July 23. "Because Crown Central has repeatedly demonstrated its disregard for state enforcement action, only penalties of sufficient size will ensure Crown Central's full compliance in the future."

Cooke believed a joint federal-state legal action against Crown was the best way to get the company into compliance and "bolster public confidence in both EPA and TNRCC's ability to work together to effectively address an important problem." The TNRCC preferred administrative action. The agency took heed of the criticism and stepped up the penalty to $1,055,425, the largest fine for air pollution in Texas. In addition to the fine, Crown was ordered to hire two independent consulting firms to study the troubled refinery and recommend pollution-cutting measures.

Hicks, the Crown spokesman, watched these developments in horror. He says that a "smear campaign" by the union was driving all of the actions of the various groups and agencies.

"No question about it," he says. "A corporate campaign is essentially a public smear campaign designed to create so much grief for the company that it says, 'Enough is enough. Okay, we give. We're not going to fight you anymore…Leave us the fuck alone.' "

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