The U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that Shell Oil and affiliated partnerships have agreed to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Air Act at its refinery and chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas. Shell will spend $115 million to mitigate emissions of harmful air pollution from industrial flares and other processes. In addition, the company will pay a $2.6 million civil penalty. An additional $1 million will be invested in a state-of-the-art system to monitor benzene levels at the fenceline of the plant near a residential neighborhood and school. The data will be made available to the public through a website.
The Deer Park facility processes approximately 330,000 barrels per day, making it the 11th largest refinery in the U.S. In addition, the co-located chemical plant produces approximately 8,000 tons per day of products that include ethylene, benzene, toluene, xylene, phenol, and acetone. Both the chemical plant and the refinery operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Industrial flares are devices used to burn waste gases. As part of the settlement, Shell is required to take the following actions to improve flaring operations:
- Minimize flaring by recovering and recycling waste gases (which may then be reused by Shell as a fuel or product).
- Comply with limitations on how much waste gas can be burned in a flare (flare caps).
- Install and operate instruments and monitoring systems to ensure that gases that are sent to flares are burned with 98-percent efficiency.
Shell’s agreement to recover and recycle waste gases (flare gas recovery) at its chemical plant is a first of its kind.
The pollution controls, once implemented, will reduce harmful air emissions of sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene, and other hazardous air pollutants by an estimated 4,550 tons or more per year. These controls will also reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by approximately 260,000 tons per year.
Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said in a statement that the case was part of a larger effort to to protect “fenceline neighborhoods.”
It is also part of a national effort to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants, with a particular focus on industrial flares. These requirements focus on reducing the amount of waste gas sent to flares and on improving flare operations, both of which work to reduce toxic emissions. Improper operation of an industrial flare can send hundreds of tons of hazardous air pollutants into the air. The more waste gas a company sends to a flare, the more pollution occurs. The less efficient a flare is in burning waste gas, the more pollution occurs. EPA wants companies to flare less, and when they do flare, to fully burn the harmful chemicals found in the waste gas.
Shell also plans to modify its wastewater treatment plant, replace and repair tanks as necessary, inspect tanks biweekly for leaks, and implement enhanced monitoring and repair practices at the benzene production unit. These projects are estimated to cost between $15 and $60 million.