Shell Oil and Deer Park

Photo Roy Luck, Flikr. Creative Commons.
Photo Roy Luck, Flikr. Creative Commons.

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 ….

arcticfoxSo 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.


31 thoughts on “Shell Oil and Deer Park

  1. Oy. Most corporations will go as far as they can regardless of the consequences, and very few politicians are willing them to call them on it. The energy companies are not unique, but they are among the worst. We have some large refineries south of Chicago, and also a site where the tar sands waste is shipped. And I can only wonder what kind of influence was applied to allow Shell to do drilling in the Arctic.


    1. Shell has been trying since 2005 and happily, environment groups have dogged them mercilessly causing delay after delay. These corporations are just like school bullies and people into domestic abuse: they do it because they can. As soon as someone who enjoys slightly more power puts a limit on their activities they stop.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have yet to find an oil company or chemical company that cares about the environment except to exploit it…this is awful news.


  3. People love ignorance and most prefer being lied to because it’s easier than the truth. Accepting the truth of a situation requires either a willingness to change to prevent disaster from happening again or a willingness to ignore what you’ve learned. By not having to deal with the info, nothing has to change. It’s infuriating in a society with access to an overwhelming amount of information people still choose to stick their heads in the sand and let others do the thinking for them. Sad.


    1. I wasn’t all that surprised to not see coverage in general even though it is a slow time for news. I was pretty surprised by the thin presentation from the local paper that has witnessed all this stuff over the years. You are so right: as long as we don’t have to actually deal with the info, nothing needs to change. So much for the promise of the information age.


  4. A good post, Debra. I don’t know that I can add anything. I too participate in the system more than I prefer to, but I hope some of my personal choices mitigate TOO much sell-out. I don’t know what the answer is–until regular folk stand up, these large corporations will have more of our “leaders” ears than the people do.


    1. You are doing so much already. And I believe those lifestyle choices mean something. One of the answers is to prevent them from destroying the Arctic while we still can. Another is to say no to -all- new drilling. The stuff in reserve already exceeds what we can safety burn.


  5. People power is the only way to make these companies listen. A petition is great but if a big percentage of people ALL decided NOT to buy Shell petrol on one specific day, they might actually start to listen.


    1. Petitions are usually useless but these petitions against Arctic drilling (I’ve seen several) might actually have some bite. The company cannot continue without Federal permission. President Obama is on his way out and may want to leave a positive legacy regarding THE issue of our time. There is a Shell boycott and if everyone joined in I think that would be grand. The first boycott against Shell was formed in response to the murders and extreme environmental devastation in Africa. I don’t now if that one ever officially dissolved but people are revisiting the idea again.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I share your outrage. It we could only get a Kardashian to move to east Houston… Somehow I doubt it would continue to be considered allowable if the toxins were dumped into “their” air.

    Unfortunately, unlike you I have not taken the hardest (for me) step and I’m still driving a personal vehicle. I do try to be very conservative about when and how I use my car, I try to carpool, combine trips, keep it well tuned, tires inflated, etc. But the fact remains I use a car and so long as I do that and buy fuel for it I’m participating in that system and contributing to the overall problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unless you are Grizzly Adams, opting out of a petroleum lifestyle is going to be nearly impossible. For the moment. It isn’t just the fuel but all the plastics that have invaded our lives, too. But. I really agree with Wangari Maathai: I’d rather be the insignificant hummingbird tryng to put out a forest fire than one of the crowd members standing around talking about how it is impossible.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree, it sometimes is so frustrating what companies get away with at the expense of people’s (and the world in general’s) health. We expect the govt to monitor or do something. Yet, then we have the environmental catastrophe of the Gold Mine spill caused by the EPA itself, and an almost nonchalant response by them (at least publicly). We need more people who actually care, like you and the posters above. I sometimes think it’s all a futile effort on our part but maybe if the momentum can get going with more information like this it can move us to a better and cleaner world. Thank you for this.


    1. Most people already care — a great deal. Poll after poll tells the story. I think we’ve all gotten too polite perhaps. Like, we think it might be bad manners to speak truth to power. I don’t know if it is futile but I do think it is wrong to continue to accommodate bullies like Shell.


  8. Bad news—Thank you for putting it into context, chronological context, and -most importantly- into perspective.
    And thank you for just telling the story, so more people know.
    I get so angry that I can’t be coherent, and so baffled by people’s indifference & irrational response that I never know where to begin.


    1. It is bad news. Thinking of all the adults who have gotten sick from these companies is bad enough. Knowing that children will become painfully sick and that those illnesses were preventable is unacceptable.


      1. I didn’t mean to sound cavalier. My facebook activity is basically choosing which environmental issues to air when, how often, and how repeatedly; using the best evidence, analysis (often The Guardian), and images I can find, with accompanying suggestions for action—often the limp but not useless petitions—trying to figure out how to be more persuasive than annoying, how to reveal the forces for & the forces against & the selfish versus the self-interested so that people will begin to see the patterns & be more aware & more wary—-
        I just always use the words of others, to be sure that the point is clear & doesn’t become overwhelmed by my frustration.
        And it is good to find a new source.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You didn’t sound cavalier to me at all. More like concerned. There are so very many issues and some like the increasing number of positive feedback loops regarding climate change are dire global emergencies. And likewise: I am so glad to have found your blog.


    1. Yes and people seem too willing to ignore the true costs of these things. That particular department in the EPA sold out decades ago. I don’t know how any person with any empathy at all could work for TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality). I wonder if the people working so hard to protect corporate profits would continue to be cavalier about neglecting to prevent human suffering if they had to spend one day a week working in a children’s cancer ward.

      Liked by 2 people

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