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Lawsuit accuses Shell of discharging pollutants in Providence River

By Alex Kuffner: Journal Staff Writer: Posted Aug 30, 2017 

PROVIDENCE — One of the region’s leading environmental groups has filed a lawsuit in federal court that accuses fossil fuel giant Shell of violating the federal Clean Water Act by discharging toxic pollutants into the Providence River from its storage terminal on the Fields Point waterfront.

The Conservation Law Foundation also alleges that the multinational corporation headquartered in the Netherlands — the second-largest oil and gas company in the world — has failed to take adequate steps to protect the facility from rising waters caused by climate change and a projected increase in the frequency of coastal storms and rain events.

The design of the petroleum storage tanks in Providence is similar to ones in other states that were compromised when they were flooded during Hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy, said Bradley Campbell, president of the Boston-based CLF.

Tropical Storm Harvey, which hit Texas over the weekend and moved into Louisiana, is another reminder of the threat to coastal infrastructure posed by extreme weather, he said.

“This facility is low-lying and vulnerable,” Campbell said. “Harvey should be a wake-up call to this facility and others like it.”

The Providence fuel terminal covers 75 acres on the west bank of the Providence River and receives deliveries by tanker ships. It has been in operation since 1907 and includes 25 tanks on either side of Allens Avenue that store gasoline, diesel, heating oil and other petroleum products.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Providence alleges that by inadequately controlling stormwater runoff from the site, Shell is polluting the Providence River, which empties into Narragansett Bay, New England’s largest estuary system.

The filing also argues that the terminal is at risk of flooding from climate change, citing maps developed by the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council that project inundation in different scenarios involving storm surges and sea level rise.

The terminal may be able to construct berms to protect the tanks, but Campbell said that ultimately Shell must take more drastic action.

“They need to invest in tanks that are storm-ready so that the huge investment that Rhode Island taxpayers have made in cleaning up the Bay isn’t put at risk,” he said.

The CLF is suing Shell under the “citizen suit” provisions of the Clean Water Act, which requires state and federal enforcement agencies, in this case the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to be given 60-day notice of the lawsuit.

Both agencies were notified on June 28 and have not taken action against Shell for the alleged violations.

In a statement, the DEM said it is evaluating the recent filing by the CLF and declined further comment. The EPA declined comment on the lawsuit. Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This is the second lawsuit that the CLF has brought against a fossil fuel company accusing it of endangering a New England city. Last year, the group filed suit in Boston against ExxonMobil over alleged violations at its Everett fuel terminal.

ExxonMobil has filed a motion to dismiss the suit. A hearing is set for Sept. 12.

Campbell said the fuel terminals are not the only industrial waterfront facilities that may pose a threat to New Englanders.

“We’re investigating as many of the commercial waterfront facilities as possible so that Providence and other coastal regions can avoid a catastrophic spill,” he said.

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