Oil refineries and chemical plants line the banks of the Houston Ship Channel.

Luke Metzger, the long-time Director of Environment Texas, describes his group as “a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting the air, water, and open spaces of Texas through tough-minded advocacy, winning concrete results for our environment.”

In January 2008, Environment Texas joined the Sierra Club in a lawsuit seeking to compel Shell Oil Company to comply with the Clean Air Act at its refinery and chemical plant complex in Deer Park, Texas, about 20 miles east of Houston. The National Environmental Law Center represents both groups in the case.

Why did Environment Texas decide to sue Shell for Clean Air Act violations at its facility in Deer Park?

Shell is one of the largest polluters in the Houston area and has repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act at its Deer Park refinery and chemical plant. These violations caused the release of millions of pounds of excess air pollutants over the past five years. Texas families have suffered long enough from air pollution, so we decided to take matters into our own hands.

How can citizen groups like Environment Texas get involved when companies violate the law?

The Clean Air Act allows citizen groups to file suit against polluters when the state fails to enforce the law. This right is especially important in a state like Texas, where the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is notoriously lax in its enforcement.

What effects do Shell’s emissions have on air quality around Houston? What types of pollutants are being released, and why is it important to ensure violations don’t occur?

Houston’s air is among the most polluted in America, in part because of frequent and flagrant violations of the Clean Air Act by the region’s many petrochemical facilities. The air is so polluted that on certain days of the year it’s just not safe to breathe.

Shell’s illegal air pollution includes: volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone—a major constituent in urban smog; sulfur dioxide, a lung irritant and precursor to acid rain; and cancer-causing chemical compounds.

A recent study by the University of Texas School of Public Health found elevated rates of leukemia in children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel and among children living in areas with elevated ambient air levels of 1,3-butadiene, a known carcinogen emitted by Shell’s facility.

Why is this case important? How does it compare to other Clean Air Act cases?

To my knowledge, this is the first time citizens have sued a Texas refinery to stop “upset” air emissions. These are unauthorized releases of air pollutants that occur during “non-routine” incidents, such as equipment malfunctions. The trouble is that for many companies, like Shell, “upsets” have become
standard operating practice—they are the routine.

I believe that a successful outcome in this case against a recognized industry leader could set a national precedent for air pollution control at chemical plants and refineries.