HOUSTON – Sierra Club and Environment Texas announced today that Shell Oil Company and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company have each cut illegal air pollution from major “upset” events at their Gulf Coast plants by about 95%. Those reductions are even more than was required by their settlements of federal Clean Air Act lawsuits brought by the environmental groups, and have contributed to recent efforts to improve air quality in the Houston metropolitan area.
Motions to officially mark the successful completion of the consent decrees in each case are being filed this week in federal district court.
At issue in the cases were illegal air emissions arising from so-called “upset” events – equipment breakdowns, malfunctions, and other non-routine occurrences – at Shell’s Deer Park oil refinery and chemical plant and Chevron Phillips’ Cedar Bayou chemical plant in Baytown. The illegal emissions included carcinogens, smog-forming chemicals, and other hazardous air pollutants discharged in excess of limits in the facilities’ Clean Air Act permits.
“The results achieved through these settlements show that polluters can make dramatic reductions in air pollution if someone requires them to make the effort,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “Shell and Chevron Phillips are to be commended for moving quickly to achieve compliance with the Clean Air Act after being sued, rather than choosing to pay armies of lawyers to drag things out in court.”
“Houston's air is cleaner today because of the reductions in illegal emissions at these two large Harris County plants,” explained Dr. Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “Many other large industrial facilities in the area have yet to upgrade their operations to prevent upset events, but have escaped meaningful enforcement by state and federal regulators.”
The Clean Air Act contains a “citizen suit” provision that allows private citizens affected by violations of the law to bring an enforcement suit in federal court if state and federal regulators do not. In addition to the two cases against Shell and Chevron Phillips, Environment Texas and Sierra Club filed a similar Clean Air Act citizen suit against ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery and chemical plants. That suit is scheduled for trial early in 2014.
The groups’ lawsuit against Shell, initially filed in 2008, was resolved in 2009 by a first-of-its-kind settlement mandating emission reductions, extensive physical and operational upgrades, and imposing a citizen suit-record $5.8 million penalty. The penalty payment was used entirely to fund environmental, public health and education projects in Harris County, including a solar energy demonstration project by the Houston Advanced Research Center and the replacement of scores of polluting school buses with cleaner burning engines. The Houston-Galveston Area Council implemented the school bus project, which benefited the Pasadena, Goose Creek, Sheldon, Pearland, Clear Creek, and Humble Independent School Districts.
In 2010, the environmental groups negotiated a similar settlement with Chevron Phillips, requiring stringent emission cuts, operational upgrades, and a $2 million penalty. The penalty provided essential seed money to start a multi-year environmental health project in the Ship Channel area, in which Baylor College of Medicine is collaborating with existing clinics and hospitals to provide clinical services (including a mobile health clinic) to underserved populations.
More specifically, both settlements required and achieved:
- Mandatory emission reductions: Shell cut its emissions from large upset events – those releasing enough pollutants to trigger the State’s public reporting requirements – by about 95%, from an average of approximately 1 million pounds per year before the lawsuit to about 45,000 pounds in the third year following the settlement. Chevron Phillips cut total upset emissions from nearly 200,000 pounds per year before the lawsuit to less than 9,000 pounds for all of 2012, more than a 95% reduction.
- Plant upgrades that improved performance and safety: Shell Deer Park went from 67 reported upset events per year before the lawsuit, to just 19 three years later. At Chevron Phillips’ Cedar Bayou plant, annual reported upsets dropped from about 30 per year before the lawsuit to just 6 in 2012.
- Enhanced monitoring of dangerous pollutants in key areas of each facility to detect leaks and other releases. Unpermitted emissions of the carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene have dropped to almost zero at Cedar Bayou and to a few hundred pounds per year at Deer Park.
Shell and Chevron Phillips are filing motions in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas certifying that they have fulfilled all requirements of their respective consent decrees.
Additionally, the groups’ lawsuit against Shell triggered scrutiny of the facility by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That scrutiny resulted in a separate EPA enforcement action, which was settled this past summer and mandated additional upgrades and pollution reductions at the Deer Park complex.
Sierra Club has approximately 24,000 members in Texas who are dedicated to exploring, enjoying, and protecting Texas’ environment and natural resources.
Environment Texas advocates for clean air, clean water, and preservation of Texas’s natural areas on behalf of approximately 5,000 members statewide.
The groups are represented by the Boston-based non-profit National Environmental Law Center, attorney David Nicholas of Newton, Massachusetts, and Houston attorney Philip Hilder.