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Houston Chronicle: Shell sued over Deer Park refinery emissions

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Jan. 7, 2008, 2:49PM

Environmental activists filed a federal lawsuit today against Shell Oil on behalf of citizens, saying state and federal environmental officials have failed to enforce the Clean Air Act at the company’s Deer Park plant.

Environment Texas Citizen Lobby and the Sierra Club claim Shell and several of its subsidiaries have released millions of pounds of excess air pollutants along the Houston Ship Channel over the last five years, including benzene and other toxins that can cause cancer and respiratory problems.

During a news conference this morning, group leaders accused the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of not stopping the violations.

“On average, more than once a week, Shell Oil Co. has self-reported that it violated its permit limits and released millions of pounds of chemicals and harmful pollutants into the air around the Houston Ship Channel,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “Already, Shell Oil is authorized to emit staggering amounts of pollutants into the air and with Houston’s air as bad as it is, it is simply unforgivable for them to exceed those permits .”

EPA spokesman David Bary declined to comment on the case, but said the agency is doing its job. He noted that most of the authority for permitting and enforcement has been delegated to TCEQ.

“The EPA …will continue to vigorously enforce our nation’s environmental laws to ensure protection of public health and the environment,” Bary said.

As of early afternoon, Shell had not responded to a request for comment. A TCEQ spokesman said the agency does not comment on lawsuits.

Houston and Harris County have been home to some of the nation’s worst smog and air pollution.

“The air where I live is very bad,” said Karla Land, who owns a motorcycle salvage yard and repair shop in Channelview and has lived there for 30 years. “When the wind blows up from the south, like it usually does, I know I am breathing whatever is coming out at the Shell Deer Park plant. There’s a very strong smell of sulfur sometimes from that direction.”

According to TCEQ, Shell’s Deer Park facility is the second-largest air polluter in Harris County, behind Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery.

Shell has permits that govern the type and amount of pollutants that can be emitted from the 1,500-acre Deer Park facility. There are hourly and annual limits. Shell is required to tell state officials every time an equipment breakdown or malfunction leads to an unpermitted release of air pollutants.

“We’ve collected over 300 of those reports — self-reported illegal emissions from upset events over the last five years … which add up to a total of more than 1,000 separate violations of Shell’s own permit. We know Shell’s breaking the law because Shell tells us they’re breaking the law,”said Joshua Kratka, a senior attorney with the Boston-based National Environmental Law Center, which represents citizen groups across the country in similar lawsuits. He said the technology exists to prevent most upset emissions.”The TCEQ repeatedly sends notices of violations to Shell for these incidences. Sometimes the TCEQ also issues a fine or a penalty and Shell pays some of those penalties and yet, the violations keep continuing. In effect, Shell is paying to pollute,” Kratka said.

The Clean Air Act allows private citizens to file an enforcement suit against any company violating the laws when regulatory agency enforcement has been nonexistent or ineffective. Before filing a legal action, the alleged violator must be send a notice letter to the company, EPA and TCEQ. Environment Texas and the Sierra Club sent their notice in October.

After several upset emissions in November and December, the groups decided to sue.

“Until the state of Texas starts enforcing the law and making our air safe to breathe again, the people of Texas are going to have to do their job for them,” Metzger said.

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