Texas sues Shell over Houston-area chemical fire in May

Deer Park, Texas: An overhead view of an explosion at a Shell USA Inc. facility on May 5, 2023 in Deer Park, Texas.
An explosion at a Shell USA Inc. facility on May 5 in Deer Park. The state of Texas sued the company last week, claiming that it caused air and water pollution in violation of state law. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Texas has filed a civil lawsuit against the oil giant Shell, claiming the chemical fire that burned for close to three days at its facility near Houston in May caused environmental damage from airborne contaminants and waste that flowed into nearby waterways.

The lawsuit, which seeks $1 million in damages from the oil company and a neighboring facility jointly owned by Shell and Mexico’s national oil company, was filed last week in Travis County by the Texas attorney general’s office, which typically handles major industrial accident lawsuits, on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. It alleges that Shell violated state environmental laws protecting the air and water from pollution.

A Shell spokesperson said the company is aware of the lawsuit and doesn’t comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

“The Deer Park chemicals facility remains in a recovery phase as we continue to investigate the cause of the fire and rebuild the damaged portion of the plant,” spokesperson Natalie Gunnell said in a statement.

The May 5 fire at Shell’s Deer Park chemical facility north of State Highway 225 started in the olefins unit, which holds a chemical compound made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, around 3 p.m., according to Shell. The fire spread and burned other oil and gas products.

The lawsuit states that when the facility caught fire it began “unlawfully emitting mass quantities of air contaminants into the environment” and that “vast quantities of water” used to extinguish the fire resulted in at least 68.7 million gallons of wastewater “unlawfully discharged into the Houston Ship Channel.” The water discharges went on for more than 20 days, according to the lawsuit.

The polluted water discharges occurred in both Shell and the adjacent petroleum refinery facility Deer Park Refining Limited Partnership — a joint venture of Shell and PEMEX, Mexico’s national oil company.

Jennifer Walsh, communications director for PEMEX Deer Park, said the company is dedicated to conduct their business in a safe and environmentally responsible manner to protect the local community.

"Ever since the fire occurred at Shell Chemical LP’s Deer Park plant in May, our company has committed to working cooperatively and proactively with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other regulatory agencies to resolve any concerns they may have," Walsh said.

No injuries were reported at the time of the fire, although a contract worker later filed a lawsuit alleging that he suffered severe injuries to his neck and spine during the fire. The worker is seeking over $1 million in damages.

In a press conference during the fire, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the fire ignited while workers were doing “routine maintenance.” Texas environmental regulators deployed air monitors from the Houston, Beaumont and Austin offices.

On May 8, a day after the fire was finally extinguished, Shell released a statement that said no harmful levels of chemicals had been detected in neighboring communities.

The Shell facility in Deer Park has a long history of environmental and safety violations.

According to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project looking at chemical incidents between 2016 and 2022, Shell in Deer Park had 68 emissions events, releasing 974,847 pounds of pollution into the air without authorization. According to the report, Shell also had eight “excessive” events, making it the plant with the fourth most excessive emission events in Texas during that time. That same report found that industries in Texas that reported unauthorized emissions rarely faced legal consequences.

Environmental advocates said the fire was reminiscent of a chemical fire in Deer Park’s Intercontinental Terminals Company in 2019, when chemical tanks caught fire in a massive blaze that burned for days that released dangerous levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, into the air.

Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit environmental justice organization, said in a press release the day of the Shell fire that “communities were left fearing for their health and safety as dark smoke billowed across the area” just like in 2019 and that this chemical event served as “yet another reminder of the threat posed by the petrochemical companies that line our Houston Ship Channel.”

The TCEQ referred the ITC case to the attorney general’s office, which filed a lawsuit. The case is still pending, according to Travis County District Court records.

Disclosure: Air Alliance Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.