Shell Deer Park Refinery, Texas

Houston, TX – In January 2008, NELC filed a Clean Air Act lawsuit on behalf of Environment Texas and the Sierra Club against Shell Oil Company. The suit alleged a long history of equipment breakdowns, malfunctions, and other “upset” events causing millions of pounds of illegal air emissions from the company’s refinery and chemical plant complex in Deer Park, Texas.

The impacts of that lawsuit, and those that have followed against Chevron Phillips Chemical Company and ExxonMobil Corporation, are being felt by industry, government regulators and residents of the Gulf Coast of Texas.

NELC attorneys negotiated a groundbreaking settlement of the Shell lawsuit in June 2009, achieving immediate and dramatic results.

During the five years preceding NELC’s lawsuit, Shell’s Deer Park complex reported an average of 67 upset events per year, releasing nearly a million pounds of air pollutants annually. In the two full calendar years following the settlement, those numbers dropped to 17 reported events and fewer than 100,000 pounds of pollutants released — a pollution reduction of more than 80 percent.

NELC, Environment Texas, and the Sierra Club realized similar results from their August 2009 lawsuit targeting upset emissions at Chevron Phillips’ Cedar Bayou Chemical Plant in Baytown, Texas. In the very first year following the January 2011 settlement of that case, upset emissions were cut from a pre-suit average of more than 300,000 lbs per year to approximately 60,000—another 80 percent reduction.

In addition, the nearly $8 million in penalties paid by Shell and Chevron Phillips are being devoted to a variety of local pollution reduction programs and environmental-health education efforts.

State regulators, whose lax enforcement necessitated NELC’s Gulf Coast litigation, have taken notice of our results. The Texas Attorney General filed two civil lawsuits against BP over catastrophic upset events at its Texas City refinery (seeking relief similar to that obtained by NELC); the Texas legislature increased the amount of the fines that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) may impose on polluters, from $10,000 to $25,000 per day of violation; and TCEQ itself touts its own recent efforts to step up enforcement activity.

The industry has also taken notice and will be paying close attention to the outcome of our latest Clean Air Act case against ExxonMobil, whose three Baytown facilities comprise the largest petrochemical complex in the nation (see accompanying article, 2012 Fall – Exxon Lawsuit Kicks Into High Gear).