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Shell Agrees to Pay $66,900 Fine for Pollution

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Times Staff Writer

In a settlement negotiated with federal environmental officials, Shell Oil has agreed to pay $66,900 for discharging sulfur dioxide pollution in excess of air quality standards at its refinery in Carson.

The fine is the largest levied against the facility within memory of Shell officials. It is more than the total amount of fines levied in four years against Shell by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The violation is also unique in another way: Shell knew it was going to violate federal air quality standards beforehand and came to federal and local environmental officials to work out an agreement, according to Lucia Blakeslee, assistant regional counsel for the Environmental Protection Agency.

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“Shell came to us. We didn’t go to Shell. We have not ever seen a violation of this sort until this one,” Blakeslee said.

“EPA was very pleased that Shell was willing to come to us with their dilemma and work it out and come to a very sound environmental result.”

Shell’s dilemma stemmed from a state-mandated inspection of a boiler linked to the refinery’s sulfur recovery plant. The sulfur plant removes foul-smelling, poisonous sulfur gases from hydrocarbon gases that are used to make gasoline and other petroleum products.

Shutting down the boiler for the inspection, which takes place every three years, would mean shutting down a unit in the pollution-removing sulfur recovery plant.

Without the unit in operation, the sulfur recovery plant would still remove about 95% of the sulfur, but refinery officials realized that the remaining 5% would put them over the limit for emissions of sulfur dioxide, according to Shell spokesman Gene Munger.

“We went to the EPA and the AQMD,” Munger said. “You have to get a variance from the AQMD and a waiver from the EPA. So as part of this deal, the EPA says: ‘OK, you get a waiver, but we are going to fine you.’

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“What was the alternative? We could have shut down the refinery, or we could have applied for a variance to the boiler inspection code. Shutting down the complex for four or five days costs lots of money. And when you shut down and start up, that gives you safety problems. We said, ‘We’ll take the hit,’ and made the deal.

“The good news--and nobody thinks it is good news when you have a heavy fine--is that the excess sulfur dioxide concentrations were at levels which had no effect on human health.”

Some sulfur-producing operations at the refinery are not tied to the recovery plant. In addition to the fine, Shell agreed to conditions that reduced these other sulfur dioxide emissions from the refinery by 50% to 60% while the sulfur recovery unit was working at partial strength, according to Munger.

Munger and Blakeslee said the refinery has not been fined for similar emissions in the past because Shell officials had been unaware that the increased sulfur dioxide stemming from a mandated boiler inspection would be a violation.

Blakeslee said a check of other refineries indicated that they did not suffer from the same problem because they had been designed differently.

The Shell boiler inspection took place in early April, and the sulfur recovery units functioned at only partial efficiency for about four days beginning April 4. During that time, Shell installed a bypass so that the boiler can be inspected in the future without a shutdown.

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The agreement between Shell and the EPA, filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, will not become final for at least 30 days, during which the public may comment.

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