The units at a Houston-area Shell refinery that caught fire this weekend repeatedly malfunctioned in recent years without recourse from Texas regulators.
Since the start of 2022, the British oil giant reported at least four malfunctions at one olefins unit in its Deer Park petrochemical refinery that had resulted in thousands of pounds of illegal pollution but no fines or citations. Olefins units—the heart of petrochemical complexes—separate hydrocarbons into the components of plastics.
In every case prior to this weekend’s fire, Shell invoked the “affirmative defense,” an element of Texas law that relieves industrial operators of liability for pollution events that are reported as accidents or emergencies.
Critics of the affirmative defense say it allows companies to defer expensive equipment upgrades and maintenance without fear of consequences for dangerous malfunctions.
“If I was involved in a car crash and hurt someone, I can’t just put my hands up and say ‘it was an accident,” said Jaun Parras, a longtime public health advocate in Houston and co-director of TEJAS Barrios, an environmental justice nonprofit. “So why are we letting Shell and its funders get away with incidents like this?”
Last month, a study released by the Environmental Integrity Project found that industries in Texas reported thousands of illegal emissions each year but rarely faced legal consequences.
“In only one half of one percent of these incidents did the state use its legal authority to require the companies to analyze the cause of the problem and take concrete action to avoid these pollution releases in the future,” the study said.
According to a Friday report filed by Shell with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a fire at its Deer Park chemical plant shut down the refinery’s olefins units on Friday afternoon. The fire went out early Saturday morning but then reignited and burned until Monday.
Monitors Detect No Threats to Health
A black plume rose above the neighborhoods east of Houston, where hundreds of thousands of people live along the edges of the nation’s largest petrochemical complex.
Throughout, Shell said the fire posed no threat to public health.
Air monitoring “has not detected any harmful levels of chemicals affecting neighboring communities,” the company said in a statement. “There is no danger to the nearby community.”
The TCEQ sent monitoring units to the area in response and said it “did not detect any readings of health concern.”
TCEQ mobile monitors on Saturday detected benzene at 34.2 parts per billion and 1,3-Butadiene at 19.4 ppb, in Channelview, an area north of the Shell refinery.
In the previous 10 days, both substances had peaked around 2 ppb at the stationary air monitors in Channelview.
In response to questions, TCEQ said it did not consider those levels to be “atypically high concentrations,” sitting below half the threshold density the TCEQ considers requiring further investigation.
According to Tim Doty, a former manager of the TCEQ’s mobile monitoring program, those readings should have spurred further investigation.
“Those certainly seem elevated to me from what the background should be, unless you’re sitting in a parking lot at a gas station,” said Doty, now a private environmental consultant. “It seems to me that if you found elevated concentrations you would want to spend more time there.”
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According to Neil Carman, a former TCEQ inspector and current clean air director with the Sierra Club in Houston, there is no safe exposure level for benzene.
“You are breathing a cancer-causing chemical,” he said.
Carman, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, wondered why the agency did not report data on soot or many other substances that may be present in refinery fire emissions. He also said the TCEQ used single-point pollution monitors instead of monitors that can detect invisible gases over a larger area.
“The TCEQ is in the business of finding no problem,” he said. “It’s very easy to go out and find no problem. To me that’s just not credible when you see all that smoke.”
History of Malfunctions
For Shell’s Deer Park refinery, it was the eighth self-reported violation of pollution permits since 2022—one of 513 such events in the last 20 years, according to TCEQ data.
But the last air pollution fine levied on Shell by the TCEQ, about $13,000, came in November 2021. (Shell posted record $40 billion profits last year).
On Feb. 7, 2022, a gas compressor malfunction on olefins “unit 3” led to releases including 7,358 pounds of carbon monoxide, 2,994 pounds of ethylene and 1,299 pounds of propylene, according to self-reporting logged with the TCEQ. On Feb. 9, the compressor tripped again.
In August 2022, Shell reported a malfunction in an olefins unit “due to loss of high pressure boiler feed water.” And in January 2023, olefins units 2 and 3 shut down “due to the extreme freezing weather conditions.”
Problems go back even farther.
In September 2021, Shell reported a compressor trip on olefins unit 3 due to “an incorrect script in a graphics faceplate.”
In October 2019 Shell reported 81.88 pounds of benzene emissions from the olefins units after a line “was discovered to be open ended and draining into the sewer system.”
In April 2018, Shell reported leaking 700 pounds of propane and propylene gas from a hole in a line. In November 2018, another line leak on an olefins unit led to emissions including 965 pounds of methane.
According to Elena Craft, an associate vice president with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas’ lax enforcement of pollution law fuels the steady succession of chemical disasters near Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city.
Data from the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters shows at least 11 large “chemical incidents” along the Houston Ship Channel since 2021.
They included an Aug. 5, 2021, chemical spill at Texmark in Galena, an Aug. 16, 2021, chemical leak from Lubrizol in La Porte, a Dec. 23, 2021, fire and explosion at an Exxon Baytown refinery, and a June 14, 2022 fire at LyondellBasell in Houston. Also, a June 21, 2022, fire at the Oxy Vinyls plastics factory in La Porte, a Jan. 6, 2023, fire at Celanese Industrial in Pasadena, and a Jan. 24, 2023, tornado strike at Ineos plastics factory in Houston.
“How many more of these events?” Craft said. “It’s literally one right after the other.”