Shell USA Refinery at Deer Park, Texas (Photo Credit: Roy Luck)

Analysis: What Deer Park Teaches Us About The Petrochemical Industry

Units at the Shell USA refinery in Deer Park, Texas that caught fire two weeks ago had multiple malfunctions in recent years. These same faulty units were also spewing out tons of illegal pollution. Who exactly is monitoring the petrochemical industry?
Posted on May 19, 2023 
By Mary Black and Jay Marcano

Today marks the two-week anniversary of the massive fire at Shell's Deer Park Chemicals Plant in Texas. A lawsuit seeking more than $1 million in damages has been filed against Shell by a worker who was injured because of the blaze. Among other claims, the lawsuit states Shell was grossly negligent and failed to properly monitor flammables and take precautionary measures to avoid this type of fire. The giant blaze sent nine workers to hospital.

The massive fire broke out at the Shell refinery, causing thick smoke to fill the air and prompting a shelter-in-place order for nearby residents. The fire went out early Saturday morning but then reignited and burned until Monday.

Unsurprisingly, this is all too common for local residents living in communities surrounding the toxic and sprawling complexes of oil refineries and petrochemical plants in Texas. Many of these companies - like Shell - make the raw materials used in plastics including single-use plastics like bags, bottles and cups. 

An Inside Climate News article reports that since the start of 2022, the British oil giant Shell reported at least four malfunctions at one olefins unit in its Deer Park petrochemical refinery (olefins units are complexes in the heart of a petrochemical facility). This resulted in thousands of pounds of illegal pollution but no fines or citations.

For Shell’s Deer Park refinery, it was the eighth self-reported violation of pollution permits since 2022 and one of 513 such events in the last 20 years,

This is just one example of the dangers of our reliance on fossil fuels and the environmental risks that come with them. Deer Park, Texas has a long history of air pollution from the petrochemical industry.  According to analysis from Earthjustice and the New York Times based on federal records, more than one million pounds of chemicals, including the carcinogens 1,3-butadiene and formaldehyde, were released over the past decade in Deer Park.

There is no end game to our reliance on oil extraction and burning of fossil fuels. 

There are no net zero pledges, carbon sequestering or offsetting programs that will decrease the risks of these kinds of accidents and disasters or will reduce the impact to those working communities of color that live in close proximity.”

The industry as a whole was fully aware of the ways it was causing the climate crisis, but spent decades creating misinformation to fuel political inaction.  That inaction continues to  disproportionately impact the health of Black and brown people and the planet. Shell in particular reported $40 billion dollars in profits in 2022 (more than double what it made the previous year), and yet the British oil giant was fined a mere $13,000 in 2021 for air pollution by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

All of us have a role in building a more sustainable future and a plastic-free world.  Yet, shouldn’t companies like Shell play a much bigger part?

For further insight into petrochemicals, check out our podcast episode "Secret Sauce" with Sharon and Shamyra Lavigne as well as "Still in My Backyard" Featuring Filipino activist Von Hernandez, environmental justice campaigner Yvette Arellano, and Indonesian lawyer Tiza Mafira.

This story is part of a People over Plastic investigative series that examines key environmental justice issues in America’s Gulf South. The series will feature stories about BIPOC and low-income communities living in the shadow of petrochemical production. Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn and Twitter. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.

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© People over Plastic 2023
© People over Plastic 2023