Harris County plans lawsuit against Valero for Houston refinery pollution

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Harris County in Texas plans to sue Valero Energy Corp for pollution from its Houston refinery, the head of the county’s environmental law department said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: The Valero refinery next to the Houston Ship Channel is seen in Houston, Texas, U.S., May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

A Valero spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment.

The suit will be brought under a provision of the U.S. Clean Air Act that allows citizens to sue over pollution, said Rock Owens, managing attorney of the environmental practice group in the Harris County Attorney’s Office.

In recent years, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Environment Texas have filed citizen lawsuits against refineries and chemical plants, but it is rare for governments to do so, Owens said.

“It’s been extremely unusual in Texas,” he said. “I can’t speak to the rest of the nation.”

The lawsuit, which would be filed in federal court must be preceded by a 60-day notice to Valero, the nation’s second largest refiner, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Owens expects that notice will be issued this summer.

The Valero refinery is bordered on one side by the Manchester neighborhood in east Houston along the Houston Ship Channel. Residents of the largely Hispanic neighborhood have repeatedly blamed pollution from area refineries and chemical plants for health problems.

“This is an area where people have been crying for relief for years,” Owens said.

In 2017, a federal judge ordered Exxon Mobil Corp to pay a $20-million fine for pollution from the company’s giant Baytown, Texas, refinery and chemical plant complex as part of a citizen lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter and Environment Texas.

The same organizations have notified Valero of plans to sue the company over pollution from its refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, 90 miles (145 km) east of Houston.

Other lawsuits brought by the Sierra Club and Environment Texas have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements with companies like Royal Dutch Shell Plc

Five major refineries, accounting for 7.5% of national refining capacity, are located in Harris County, including the 205,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) Valero Houston refinery and the 560,500 bpd Exxon Baytown refinery.

Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Tom Brown