Texas Tribune | A provision in Texas law allows polluters to avoid penalties by claiming certain emission events are unavoidable.

Texas Tribune | Kiah Collier and Ryan Murphy

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.

Last year, there were 3,723 of these emissions events at 774 industrial sites across the state, according to the Tribune’s analysis. That’s more than 10 per day on average.

Most of these rogue releases are nowhere near as potentially catastrophic as the one at Shell Deer Park in 2015. They often come in smaller bursts or occur over a longer period of time — days, weeks, even months. And they make up a small fraction of what industrial sites are allowed to emit under their government permits.

Adrian Shelley, who for years monitored unauthorized air emissions as head of the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Air Alliance Houston, said near-misses like the Shell incident “do happen, and I suspect we would be surprised to know the frequency.”

But collectively, they add up to a significant amount of excess air pollution each year — 57.9 million pounds in 2016, according to the Tribune’s analysis. Scientists and public health experts say the toxic and smog-forming pollutants exacerbate nagging air quality problems in the state’s major urban areas, spurring increased rates of asthma and cancer, as well as contributing to climate change.

At their worst, they turn into tragedies like the 2005 BP explosion or the 2014 toxic chemical leak at DuPont's La Porte chemical plant that killed four workers.

If they don’t, though, companies are often let off the hook.

That’s thanks in part to a provision in Texas law that allows polluters to claim that such emission events are unavoidable to escape penalties. (A review of hundreds of industry reports to the state revealed none in which a company claimed fault.)

But an even bigger factor is a general unwillingness by state environmental regulators to challenge them on those claims, the Tribune has found.

Read the full story here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.