msnbc.com news services
updated 1/27/2005 3:53:26 PM ET 2005-01-27T20:53:26

ConocoPhillips, the largest U.S. refiner, will pay a $4.5 million fine and spend $525 million to cut harmful air emissions from nine U.S. petroleum refineries in seven states, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday.

Under the Clean Air Act agreement, ConocoPhillips -- the No. 3 U.S. oil company -- will pay the civil penalty and spend more than $525 million to install pollution control measures at its refineries.

It will spend at least an additional $10 million on environmental projects to further reduce emissions and support community activities to help reduce pollution.

The agreement was part of a consent decree filed in the U.S. District Court in Texas. Five states are involved in the settlement, which is a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s national effort to reduce air emissions from refineries.

The company agreed to improve detection and repair of leaks and take steps to minimize flaring of hazardous gases — the fire sometimes seen at the top of refinery smoke stacks.

'Largest of 13 settlements'
“This is the largest of 13 settlements the EPA has made with U.S. refiners,” said Thomas Skinner, assistant EPA administrator. “We now have legal agreements with companies representing more than half of domestic refining capacity.”

Under the agreement, ConocoPhillips is expected to reduce harmful air emissions by more than 47,000 tons per year from nine petroleum refineries in seven states. The affected refineries are located in Belle Chasse, La.; Linden, N.J.; Borger and Sweeny, Texas; Carson/Wilmington, Calif.; Ferndale, Wash.; Rodeo/Santa Maria, Calif.; Trainer, Pa. and Roxanna/Hartford, Ill.

The actions are expected to reduce annual emissions of nitrogen oxide by more than 10,000 tons and sulfur dioxide by more than 37,100 tons per year. Emissions of particulate matter are expected to be significantly reduced, Justice Department officials said.

Asthma, breathing risks
The air pollutants addressed by the agreement can cause serious respiratory problems and exacerbate cases of childhood asthma.

“Today’s settlement with the largest petroleum refiner in America leads us closer to ensuring clean air compliance across the refining industry,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sansonetti, who runs the department’s’ environment and natural resources division. “The department will continue to aggressively pursue these actions to reduce air pollution.”

The settlement is the 13th reached under an EPA initiative begun in December 2000. EPA officials have said the earlier agreements have cut air pollution by 200,000 tons a year at 48 refineries in 24 states.

Sansonetti said other refineries are under investigation.

But the EPA’s inspector general reported last June that the agency does a poor job tracking compliance with the agreements and environmental groups said deadlines in prior settlements have been repeatedly extended.

“The announcement is good, but implementation is more important and there have been some problems,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former EPA official who worked on refinery settlements.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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