Shell Chemical LP has agreed to install $10 million worth of pollution monitoring and control equipment at its Norco chemical plant after federal regulators accused the energy giant in a lawsuit of violating the federal Clean Air Act at that location for 20 years.
The settlement, reached last week in federal court in New Orleans as part of a consent decree, resolves allegations that Shell failed to properly control industrial flares at the facility, allowing chemicals capable of causing cancer to permeate the air around the plant.
Officials said Shell was putting local residents at risk by using four of the company's flares illegally for more than two decades. The new controls are designed to eliminate more than 150 tons of pollutants that had been released into the air every year.
Flares, devices that create flames high off the ground, burn off toxic waste gases that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere during industrial production.
Shell was accused of modifying the flares without proper permitting. The changes resulted in a "significant net emissions increase," according to the complaint.
The federal lawsuit, filed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, says Shell had allowed unsafe practices to go on since 1997.
"This settlement will improve air quality for citizens of Louisiana by reducing emissions of harmful air pollution," Pruitt said in a news release announcing the consent decree. "Today’s agreement demonstrates EPA’s dedication to working with states to pursue violations of laws that are critical to protecting public health and bring companies into compliance."
As part of the settlement, Shell will pay civil penalties of $350,000. Of that amount, $87,500 will go to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
The lawsuit originally sought far more: $302 million in federal civil penalties and $251 million for the state.
The Shell facility, about 20 miles northwest of New Orleans, manufactures ethylene, propylene and butadiene to sell to other manufacturers.
Those companies in turn use the chemicals to produce antifreeze, tires, plastic food containers, trash bags, laundry detergent, cosmetics and hundreds of other consumer and industrial products.
The facility operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Officials estimate that once implemented, the pollution controls will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds by about 159 tons per year.
Shell also has been tasked with reducing other harmful air pollutants, including benzene, by approximately 18 tons per year.
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and benzene can "seriously harm public health," according to the EPA.
The EPA classifies benzene as a carcinogen. Chronic exposure can cause health problems such as leukemia and adverse reproductive effects in women.
VOCs, a key component in the formation of smog or ground-level ozone, irritate the lungs, exacerbate diseases such as asthma and can increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis, according to federal officials.
Generally, companies are tasked with limiting exposure to those chemicals through well-operated flares that have high “combustion efficiency,” according to the EPA.
That means they burn nearly all the harmful components in gases, or waste being released into the air, by turning them into water and carbon dioxide.
Under the consent decree, Shell must take steps to minimize the amount of waste gas sent to the flares and operate a flare gas recovery system, which allows it to use waste gas that would otherwise be sent to flares as fuel.
State-of-the-art monitoring and control technology also will ensure the flares are operated at high combustion efficiency, the EPA said.
Finally, the consent decree mandates that Shell monitor air pollution along the facility's fence line and publish the monitoring results on a public website.
The agreement was made with the Justice Department, EPA and state DEQ.
DEQ Secretary Chuck Brown said the consent decree proves Louisiana is "committed to working hand-in-hand" with federal partners.
"Actions like this one not only serve to clean up the air our citizens breathe, they send a message that we will not tolerate violations of federal or state laws," Brown said.
The consent decree is subject to a 30-day federal public-comment period and a 45-day state public-comment period before final court approval.