The units at a Houston-area Shell refinery that caught fire this weekend repeatedly malfunctioned in recent years without recourse from Texas regulators.
Since the start of 2022, the British oil giant reported at least four malfunctions at one olefins unit in its Deer Park petrochemical refinery that had resulted in thousands of pounds of illegal pollution but no fines or citations. Olefins units—the heart of petrochemical complexes—separate hydrocarbons into the components of plastics.
In every case prior to this weekend’s fire, Shell invoked the “affirmative defense,” an element of Texas law that relieves industrial operators of liability for pollution events that are reported as accidents or emergencies.
Critics of the affirmative defense say it allows companies to defer expensive equipment upgrades and maintenance without fear of consequences for dangerous malfunctions.
“If I was involved in a car crash and hurt someone, I can’t just put my hands up and say ‘it was an accident,” said Jaun Parras, a longtime public health advocate in Houston and co-director of TEJAS Barrios, an environmental justice nonprofit. “So why are we letting Shell and its funders get away with incidents like this?”