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DEP Slashes Pollution Enforcement Fine For Valero Oil Refinery

Valero refinery (Paulsboro, NJ) - Don't you love the landscaping?
Valero refinery (Paulsboro, NJ) – Don’t you love the landscaping?

Christie Trashes “Polluter Pays” Policy – Shifts Burden to Taxpayers

In another stunning dirty deal, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) slashed a proposed $2.3 million Valero oil refinery air pollution fine to just $796,000, a $1.5 million (65%) reduction from the level recommended by enforcement staff under the applicable regulations.

Maya Rao of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

As Valero Energy completed the sale of its Paulsboro refinery last month, the company was in talks with the state to address $2.3 million in pollution violations. … In the end, the Texas oil giant will pay just one-third of the penalties. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection agreed to reduce them to $796,040 in two consent orders signed in December and January.

DEP air pollution enforcement penalties allow DEP to issue fines of $50,000 per day, per violation. Fines are based upon several factors, but primarily the severity of the violation and the compliance history of the violator. In addition to punishment for the violation, stiff enforcement fines also create a deterrent effect and economic incentives that promote compliance.

The huge success of the mandatory penalties under the Clean Water Enfrocement Act is proof positive of the benefits of an aggressive enforcement policy.

Paulsboro HS soccer field, in shaddow of Valero refinery. Prevailing winds blow pollution directly into the school.

Paulsboro HS soccer field, in shadow of Valero refinery. Prevailing winds blow pollution directly into the school.

In this case, the most severe penalties were warranted, given Valero’s poor compliance record (several prior violations) and the public health impacts of the toxic pollution emitted by the refinery.

Valero committed major violations – the refinery had rained toxic pollutants down upon a nearby school and residential neighborhood. According to the Inquirer:

The violations included the discharge of “slurry oil” that reached Paulsboro High School property and a residential area where it could flow into state waters, as well as emissions of pollutants above the allowable limit at various times between 2006 and 2010.

In August, for example, stack emission tests of an oil-processing unit at the refinery showed the release of particulate matter, which can irritate lungs, at 59 percent above the allowable rate.

The Valero deal implements the Christie Administration’s “cooperative” pro-business enforcement policy, which we criticized back in June 2010 (see: NEW JERSEY SLASHES POLLUTION ENFORCEMENT – Plummeting Fines and Fees Will Shortchange Future Enforcement Budgets

Trenton –  The Christie administration is moving away from tough anti-pollution enforcement, with anticipated fine revenue falling by more than half, according to state records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The precipitous drop in fine revenue will further reduce an already shrinking enforcement presence by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which depends on those funds to pay for inspections and monitoring of polluting industries.

The Christie budget numbers project a steep drop in DEP enforcement fine revenue from more than $14 million in FY 2009 (the last year in the books) to an anticipated $6,840,000. This trend is magnified when looking at total DEP revenues from fees and fines combined. The figures show an estimated $40 million reduction:

  • FY 09 (actual collected) $158,757,000
  • Christie FY 11 (anticipated) $118,754,000

“These reductions amount to under-the-table givebacks to corporations at the expense of the public,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP Analyst. “In a time of billion dollar deficits and draconian budget cuts, Governor Christie is cutting polluter fines.” …

Other changes also indicate a deliberately softer approach to polluters. For example, DEP just revived the Whitman-era Office of Dispute Resolution. Under Whitman, that office served as industry’s back door to override enforcement staff and negotiate voluntary agreements in lieu of formal enforcement action. Significantly, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin is housing this Office of Dispute Resolution under the new Assistant Commissioner for Economic Development, a former auto industry and Chamber of Commerce lawyer.

“What is going on is about as subtle as changing the DEP motto to “Let’s Make a Deal,” added Wolfe. “Commissioner Martin repeatedly talks about metrics as means to measure his record but, by any yardstick, cutting enforcement fines by half is a bad indicator.”

So Christie DEP Commissioner Bob Martin is violating NJ’s longstanding “polluter pays” policy.

Even his “Open For Business” Whitman Republican predecessor Bob Shinn supported “polluter pays”:

By DUNSTAN McNICHOL, Trenton Bureau
Date: 01-08-1997, Wednesday

TRENTON — In a strongly worded attack on operators of the state’s largest industrial installations, state Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert C. Shinn Jr. rejected claims that water pollution permit fees and regulations are driving industry out of New Jersey.

Martin’s radical approach rejects all that.

Martin is subsidizing oil refinery pollution and shifting the burden for paying for DEP’s inspection and enforcement program to taxpayers.

It doesn’t get any worse than that.

But maybe it does.

Dave Pringle of NJ Environmental Federation defended DEP and again showed his deep ignorance and corruption:

David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said that it could be cheaper for the state to settle for fewer fines if it cost more to collect the penalty in court, but that the penalty should reflect the cost of the pollution.

“It shouldn’t be the cost of doing business. . . . Unfortunately, it’s pretty standard operating procedure in both Democratic and Republican administrations to make settlements for significantly less than the assessed penalty,” he said.

Dave offered an excuse that not even DEP would try to get away with (i.e “cheaper for the state to settle for fewer fines if it cost more to collect the penalty in court”).

Dave is flat out wrong on the history. Yes, both Republican and Democratic Administrations do exercice discretion to reduce proposed pollution fines to reach settlements. But, that partial fact ignores the larger truth that pro-business Republicans do so as a matter of policy and in far more cases and far softer deals. Pringle has no clue because he’s never researched this data, read the regulations, or been involved in an enforcement negoatiation at DEP (I’ve done all three).

And Pringle has no facts to support this claim – it’s merely intended an excuse to deflect criticism and cover for the Christie Administration, which is his current role in life.

But, details and facts aside, ask yourself: why would a self described “grass roots environmental activist” defend and provide excuses for slashing oil refienry pollution penalties?

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