Judge Blocks Evangelist's Effort to Reopen a Refinery

New York Times/November 9, 2001
By Greg Winter

Santa Fe Springs -- Browning with age, its spires slowly rusting, the old Powerine oil refinery sits dormant after decades of bellowing smoke so thick that residents complained it took the paint off their cars.

For the last three years, Pat Robertson, the television evangelist, has been trying to start it again, but the going has been rough.

First, Mr. Robertson accused large oil companies of intimidating bankers so they would not lend him money.

And today, an order by a federal district judge in Los Angeles took effect, temporarily stripping the oil company that Mr. Robertson controls, Cenco Inc., of its permits and halting its plans to turn crude oil into gasoline for charitable purposes.

"The public interest favors enforcing the Clean Air Act and protecting the environment," Judge A. Howard Matz wrote. Reopening the refinery without installing the latest pollution controls, Judge Matz added, presented "the possibility of irreparable harm."

Although the case will probably not be decided until next year, the company said that it has complied with all environmental regulations, and is appealing the ruling.

With $20 million from his charitable trust, Mr. Robertson formed Cenco in 1998 to buy the refinery, hoping to turn California's thirst for gasoline into a generator of revenue for his work. At the time, court records show, Mr. Robertson was Cenco's sole board member. He remains its president. Cenco estimates it will cost more than $100 million to get the refinery running.

When Mr. Robertson's charitable trust is liquidated, his associates said, any profits from the refinery will go to charity. But they said they did not know when that might be.

Flanking the refinery in Santa Fe Springs, about 16 miles from Los Angeles, are a hospital, a home for the elderly and an elementary school. In addition to the environmentalists who filed the lawsuit, many residents of the neighborhood, which is about 70 percent Latino, also oppose the reopening of the plant.

Marching outside the refinery gates, protesters have accused Mr. Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, of environmental racism and have dragged his effigy in the streets, depicting him with devil's horns and a pointy red tail.

"Mr. Robertson underestimated how strongly the majority of citizens feel about reopening this refinery," said Luis Gonzalez, the town's mayor and one of the few city officials to oppose Cenco from the start. "It's one of the reasons why I got elected."

Mr. Robertson declined to comment on the dispute, his aides said, because he was busy "praying for the nation" and did not want to "divert his attention elsewhere."

In its second term, the Clinton administration vigorously enforced a provision of the Clean Air Act requiring companies to install the most advanced pollution controls on any new sources of emissions, whether the pollution comes from new plants, existing ones that increase their output or old plants that reopen.

The energy industry says this enforcement has stifled its efforts to expand production, contributing to the energy disruptions of the last few years.

The Bush administration has been sympathetic to the industry's argument and begun looking at ways to ease the environmental restraints on power plants, oil refineries and other sources of pollution.

By a strange mixture of strategy and circumstance, the Cenco case, which has mushroomed into legal battles on both coasts, could ease them further. Cenco's lawyers have challenged in federal court in Washington the requirement that closed refineries and power plants install modern pollution controls when they reopen.

J. Nelson Happy, who left his post as dean of the law school at Pat Robertson's Regent University to run Cenco, said that the company met all local environmental standards. In addition, he said, it has also settled a lawsuit filed by the environmental agency, providing what he said would be a road map for retrofitting the refinery.

Yet environmentalists were able to get Judge Matz to block the refinery's operations.

"It's an important case because it has the potential to greatly increase air pollution," said David G. Hawkins, a director at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the leader of Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution division in the Carter administration. "In many cases, these older facilities shut down to avoid putting on modern pollution controls."

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