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Shell sued over Deer Park [Texas] refinery emissions

Paper: Houston Chronicle Date: Tue 01/08/2008 Section: B Page: 1 MetFront Edition: 3 STAR
Environmental groups file suit against Shell / State, federal agencies failing to enforce emissions laws at Deer Park plant, activists say By CINDY GEORGE Staff
Environmental activists filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Shell Oil on behalf of citizens, saying state and federal environmental officials 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 past five years, including benzene and other toxins that can cause cancer and respiratory problems.
During a news conference, 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."
In a statement, Shell said it was reviewing the allegations and could not comment on specifics of the lawsuit. But the company acknowledged a December meeting with lawyers representing the environmental groups.
"Shell Deer Park refining and chemical share the goal of the Sierra Club and Environment Texas to improve air quality," the statement said. "We are committed to an ongoing dialogue with them to discuss their concerns, our operations and the steps we are taking to further reduce emissions."
The oil giant said it has a record of "continuous improvement in environmental performance achieved through significant investment in emission reduction projects and heightened employee focus on preventing operational incidents."
TCEQ's response
The TCEQ defended its oversight in a statement that said the agency "has diligently enforced provisions of the Clean Air Act in accordance with state law and regulations," but did not specifically address the lawsuit.
The state environmental regulatory agency said it is required to investigate "all emissions events, and maintenance, start-up and shutdown activities that are reported" in addition to routine probes at regulated facilities to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act.
According to state records, the Deer Park facility has more than 60 pending violations; most are for Shell's failure to prevent avoidable or unauthorized emissions. The others include failure to meet emissions reporting requirements, exceeding permit limits during an avoidable emissions event and failure to repair leaking parts.
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.
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."
`Paying to pollute'
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 technology exists to prevent most emissions caused by breakdowns and malfunctions.
"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.
Citizens' options
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 in Texas, a notice letter must be sent to the alleged violator, the EPA and TCEQ. Environment Texas and the Sierra Club sent their notices 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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Posted Date: 
23 January 2008 - 1:53pm