In the news today: the Shell Oil facility in Deer Park admits it accidentally released 326,166 pounds of butadiene last Sunday.
Somehow this number did not exceed TCEQ levels.
It looks like most news agencies aren’t reporting the accident. So does this lack of reporting mean the accident isn’t important or newsworthy?
Lies Within Lies
Like me, you might wonder, how could an accidental release of more than 300 000 pounds of a known toxin not exceed a safety limit?
It’s simple: TCEQ’s butadiene limit is one of the worst in the country — maybe the world. It is 60 times less protective than the EPA’s and 340 times less protective than California’s. It wasn’t always this weak. Back in 2007, when fracking started to boom, people were becoming alarmed by resulting air pollution so TCEQ revisited its guidelines. If you think the agency did that to protect ordinary people, you would be mistaken. Instead, TCEQ loosened protection for 45 dangerous chemicals including butadiene so businesses could be protected from complaints.
Toxicity of Butadiene
So, maybe butadiene isn’t all that toxic? After all, Shell’s spokesperson did say with a straight face, “To the best of our knowledge, there were no adverse impacts on the community.”
Let me clear the air on that one. Butadiene is a known carcinogen. Even The American Petroleum Institute (the lobbyist for benzene producers) admitted as early as 1948 that the only “absolutely safe” dose was zero.
But we don’t have to take their word on that one.
In 2008, the University of Texas School of Public Health found a strong link between butadiene and children’s cancers in East Houston where the Shell plant is located.
In fact, study after study after study has been done. Most admit there does seem to be a link. Most note that cancers in areas with the worst air pollution (like East Houston) have been on the rise since 1990. All of those studies think more study needs to be done. I haven’t found any that say we need to stop polluting the air and our children.
Identifying a true cancer cluster is tricky. Because statistics. But in June, 2015 DSHS released a report describing “statistically significant results” for several cancers in East Houston where the largest air polluters in that city are located.
So how can Ray Fisher suggest Shell is unaware of any harm done? Because cancer takes time to form and causation is difficult to prove in court.
Old Dirty Habits
This refinery has a history of violating the Clean Air Act.
June 1997: An explosion at the plant was so massive it could be heard and felt as far away as 25 miles. Residents living nearby were advised to remain inside their homes. Shell agreed to a $350,000 out of court settlement.
2003-2008: Environment Texas found 1,000 separate violations of Shell’s pollution permit.
July 2013: In negotiations with the EPA, Shell agreed to spend $115 million to update the plant and stop flaring. It agreed to put in a $1 million monitoring system to check the benzene levels along its fence which borders a school. Shell also agreed to a $2.6 million fine. In exchange, the EPA would say Shell was not ‘guilty’ but only ‘alleged’ to have made Clean Air Act violations.
January 2015: In a civil case, Shell agreed to pay a $900,000 penalty for ‘alleged’ violations of the Clean Air Act
What can we do?
Spread the news. Support the people of East Houston. Let them know they aren’t alone. I saw one kickstarter was raising money for people diagnosed with cancer. Let your elected representatives know you care. Etc. I am sure you can think of even better ideas. While we are at it ….
So even in a populated area, Shell has a history of flagrantly violating environmental law. Right now, Shell is in one of the most isolated areas of the planet — the Arctic — drilling for oil. Even though experts say there is a 75% chance of a spill and 0% technology for cleaning spilled oil from ice pack. Every other oil company has stated the conditions are too risky. At this point, it is only an exploratory drilling though. To continue, Shell will need permission from President Obama to continue. Please consider signing one of the petitions circulating. You can find one here.