The state of Texas allows industrial facilities to repeatedly spew unauthorized air pollution — with few consequences
For more than two decades, Dennis Gallagher was a proud Shell employee.
During his 22 years working at the energy juggernaut’s sprawling, 80-year-old complex in this Refinery Row suburb of Houston, he learned to oversee different parts of the massive chemical plant and refinery. The facilities manufacture not only oil but a variety of hazardous chemicals that — if mishandled — could easily explode and level the 2,300-acre compound, located less than a mile from residential neighborhoods.
Until two years ago, the Michigan native’s only truly bad day at work was in 1997, when a gas compressor exploded and he was “picked up like a leaf” and blown back 25 feet. Then came what should have been a quiet Sunday in August 2015, when everything went wrong.
A critical pump failed. A small tank overfilled. Then more than 300,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene — a highly explosive chemical and known human carcinogen used to manufacture rubber — escaped into the atmosphere.
It was the largest malfunction-related Air Pollution event in the Houston area that year — in less than an hour, the plant spewed 258 times more butadiene into the atmosphere than allowed by state law — and air pollution watchdogs say it was one of the most dangerous they’ve seen.
An internal investigation later noted that the amount of hydrocarbons released that day was more than eight times higher than the amount released during the 2005 fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 people and injured 180 others.
There was no explosion that day. But Gallagher says the incident cost him his job and maybe his health. He struggled with chest pains and balance issues afterward — the latter is a known side effect of butadiene exposure — and had to take a year off. When he came back, Gallagher said he was put on probation for the incident and, after a minor screw-up during a routine re-training, promptly fired.
And yet it cost Shell Chemical, a subsidiary of the fifth-largest company in the world, next to nothing.
State records show the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental regulatory agency, fined the company just $25,000 — the maximum allowed for an air permit violation under state law — and required it to execute a “corrective action plan,” which called for mostly refresher training.
It’s a scenario that plays out again and again in Texas when industrial polluters spew noxious chemicals into the air during malfunctions and other unplanned incidents, exceeding the emission limits of their state-issued air permits.
A Texas Tribune analysis of self-reported industry data shows that thousands of such rogue releases occur at Texas industrial sites each year. They are known generically as “emissions events”— a term that refers to both malfunctions or “upsets” and unplanned “maintenance, start-up or shutdown” activities.
Whether they are truly unavoidable is a point of dispute.
Read the full article by the Tribune here.
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