Shell to Pay Up for "Alleged" Air Pollution from Deer Park Refinery

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Houston is a city known for many good things, but one of the bad things this town is known for is the air -- there's a lot of air pollution around here, and we've got the ozone watch days to prove it.

So you wouldn't think a little extra air pollution would get noticed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department, but it turns out you'd be wrong. Officials with the EPA and the Justice Department found out that a Deer Park chemical plant and refinery, owned by Royal Dutch Shell Plc., was "allegedly" flaring waste chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, into the air without actually burning all the stuff that was coming out of the flare, according to a release issued Wednesday.

The EPA told the folks over at the company, which is headquartered in Houston, that the Deer Park facility was in violation of the Clean Air Act and needed to get on it and stop the emissions. Then the Justice Department got in on the act and filed a complaint against the company on behalf of the EPA. Then, as these things tend to work, the EPA worked out a deal with Shell where the company would spend "at least $115 million" to update the plant and refinery and stop flaring waste gases, like sulfur dioxide and benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer.

The EPA even said this agreement was all due to Shell's "alleged" violations in the release. This seems like a hilarious bit of terminology, since it's a fair bet that the company might be doing these updates, but most assuredly would not be paying a $2.6 million fine if the Deer Park facility wasn't actually doing some impressive polluting. But by keeping the air pollution "alleged," there is no determination of whether Shell is liable for the pollution. (Draw your own conclusions over why a company wouldn't want to admit being legally liable for this type of pollution.)

Shell will be required to minimize flaring by recovering and recycling waste gases, complying with limits on how much waste gas can be burned in a flare and installing and operating instruments and monitoring systems to make sure that the gases sent to the flares actually being burned by at least 98 percent, according to the release. These updates will reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, benzene and other waste gases by about 4,550 tons a year. The changes will cut greenhouse gases by 260,000 tons a year.

Also, on a slightly more disturbing note, the company is putting in a $1 million monitoring system to check the benzene levels along its fence line. The fence line hugs a neighborhood and a school and the monitors will make sure a bunch of benzene, a known carcinogen, isn't drifting out of the plant and into the area. The company will also make the information it collects at these monitoring sites public, according to the release.

Anyway, this is likely all in lieu of paying a much steeper fine. In the settlement with the EPA and the Justice Department, Shell is paying a $2.6 million fine and making improvements to its plant and refinery system, likely instead of paying a much heftier fine.

The settlement was lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. There will be a 30-day public comment period and then the whole deal will get going, if it is approved by the court.

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