Environmental Groups sue Shell for Excess Pollution at Texas Refinery

January 9, 2008

Environmental groups have sued Shell Oil Co. and several of its affiliates, claiming the oil giant has for years released pollutants from its suburban Houston refinery that are well above state and federal limits.

In their federal lawsuit, the Sierra Club and Environment Texas claim the excess air pollutants, including toxic chemicals benzene and 1,3-butadiene, are a violation of the federal Clean Air Act.

The groups said they sued because they felt the governmental agencies responsible for monitoring Shell Oil – the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – have failed to bring the refinery into compliance.

Houston-based Shell Oil, an affiliate of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, one of the world’s largest oil companies, issued a statement expressing confidence in its attempts to reduce pollution.

“We have a record of continuous improvement in environmental performance achieved through significant investment in emission reduction projects and heightened employee focus on preventing operational incidents,” the statement said, noting the company was willing to talk to groups about their concerns.

Dave Bary, spokesman for the EPA’s regional office in Dallas issued a brief statement, saying, “The Environmental Protection Agency’s strong enforcement program will continue to vigorously enforce our nation’s environmental laws to ensure protection of public health and the environment.”

The TCEQ said there are various pending cases against the refinery for unauthorized emissions and that nearly $290,000 in fines have been assessed on the facility since 2003 for such releases and other violations.

“The TCEQ has diligently enforced provisions of the Clean Air Act in accordance with state law and regulations,” the agency said in a statement.

The lawsuit alleges that at a rate averaging more than once per week starting in 2003, the refinery has had unauthorized emissions releases due to equipment breakdowns or unscheduled maintenance that have exceeded hourly and annual limits on pollutants.

They want a judge to order Shell to comply with emissions limits and to fine the company up to $32,500 per day for each violation. The environmental groups allege Shell has committed more than 1,000 violations.

“Shell has not taken the corrective action to keep the volume of emissions from being high. The technology exists to prevent most of these (unauthorized) emissions,” Neil Carman, with the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, said at a news conference held in a park in the shadow of Shell’s downtown headquarters.

The 1,500-acre refinery is about 20 miles east of downtown Houston, home to one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes and one of the nation’s smoggiest cities. The refinery is the nation’s eighth largest.

An analysis by the environmental groups of Shell’s reports to the TCEQ show that since 2003, more than 2 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, more than 600,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, more than 250,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, more than 90,000 pounds of benzene and more than 60,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene have been released at the refinery.

According to the EPA, Benzene and 1,3-butadiene are classified as human carcinogens; nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide lead to the formation of ozone; sulfur dioxide contributes to respiratory illness.

Shell said benzene emissions dropped by 14 percent from 2005 to 2006 and there was a 67 percent drop between 2005 and 2007 in incidents where unauthorized emissions from the production of chemical products known as olefins had to be burned off through flare systems.

Karla Lands, who lives close to the refinery in nearby Channelview, said the plant shares some blame for her upper respiratory breathing problems.

“Shell needs to run a clean plant and not put the pollution in the air that is harming everyone,” said Lands, a Sierra Club member.

The Clean Air Act allows private citizens to file suit if federal and state regulators do not.

The environmental groups suing Shell Oil said they had no choice but to sue the company because the only consequences the oil company has faced are fines.

“In effect Shell is paying to pollute,” said Josh Kratka, an attorney for the Sierra Club and Environment Texas. “Nothing the EPA or TCEQ has done has stopped the violations.”

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