Last week’s fire in the olefins unit at the Shell chemical plant in Deer Park is all the more tragic for how commonplace it is. The Texas Tribune recently published a report on the history of negligence and accidents at the Shell refinery in Deer Park—particularly its olefins unit, where industrial chemicals hostile to human health are manufactured. What might seem like a freak accident or singular tragedy is actually part of a long pattern of neglect and refusal to perform maintenance on aging and increasingly dangerous equipment.
The Shell refinery in Deer Park has had eight self-reported pollution events in the last year.
The most recent fire is the fourth malfunction at the olefins unit alone.
In the last 20 years, Shell has had a staggering 500+ pollution ‘accidents.’ But when something occurs regularly and for predictable reasons, can it be called just an accident?
- In October 2019, they discovered an open line at the refinery afterit had released about 82 pounds of benzene—one of the most carcinogenic chemicals ever manufactured—directly into the sewer.
- In September 2021, a gas compressor tripped in the olefins unit and released pollutants into the air.
- In February 2022, a gas compressor tripped and released over 11,000 pounds of dangerous chemicals into the air. Two days later, the same compressor tripped again, releasing more pollutants.
Meanwhile, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hasn’t cited the plant for air pollution since November 2021, when Shell got a $13,000 fine. The company unlikely lost sleep over it: the fine was roughly 0.000032% of its profits that year. It received no citations for unauthorized pollution in 2022 or 2023.
Lack of Financial Accountability Creates Safety Problems
How is Shell getting away with such wanton negligence?
The better question is, how could Shell claim the injuries they caused last week were unexpected?
Looking at their record, it’s clear the company knew their facilities were having problems. It was only a matter of time until their negligence hurt someone—in this case, nearly a dozen people.
Part of the issue, critics say, is how Texas law treats companies like Shell.
Under state law, companies can release themselves from pollution-related liability simply by claiming it was an accident or emergency. This is called “affirmative defense.” Under this law, chemical plants lack financial accountability for negligence, so there’s less reason to invest in maintenance or upgrades.
Another problem is inadequate air quality monitoring after these events. There’s no sense of the danger that Shell’s refinery poses to surrounding communities unless there’s an independent investigation of air quality, which is rare. Even when it happens, it’s usually in the company’s favor—according to former TCEQ employees.
No Accountability for Shell from Texas Agencies
Last week’s fire burned for days, releasing a plume of smoke hundreds of feet above the neighborhoods east of Houston, where the largest petrochemical complex in the country operates. However, despite the fears of residents and employees around the Shell refinery, the TCEQ found nothing to worry about in the air.
But former TCEQ officials are doubtful, especially after their specific findings—including 34.2 parts-per-billion of benzene north of the refinery—were made public.
“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 Tim Doty, an environmental consultant and former TCEQ mobile monitoring manager. “It seems to me that if you found elevated concentrations, you would want to spend more time there.”
“The TCEQ is in the business of finding no problem,” said Neil Carman, Sierra Club clean air director and former TCEQ inspector. “It’s very easy to go out and find no problem. To me that’s just not credible when you see all that smoke.”
As we investigate, it’ll be more apparent what Shell has been neglecting—and who has been paying the price.