Shell Chemical Cited Again for CWA Violations

For the second time in less than a year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited Shell Chemical Yabucoa in Puerto Rico for violating the federal Clean Water Act. For this most recent violation, EPA has issued both a complaint--in which it has proposed a penalty of $153,057--and a compliance order. The complaint alleges that Shell violated CWA by improperly maintaining its deep ocean outfall equipment and discharging unauthorized pollutants. The compliance order requires the company to remedy those violations.

Shell’s petrochemical facility, located in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, has a permit from EPA to discharge treated stormwater, wastewater, and sewage-related wastewater under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The permit is a requirement of CWA, which regulates discharges into surface waters of the United States. The company’s permit allows it to discharge from a deep ocean outfall, which discharges by utilizing a multi-port diffuser--a pipe with multiple openings that aids in the dilution of pollutants. But the complaint alleges that Shell violated the permit in two ways: by unlawfully discharging pollutants into navigable waters for 14 days without authorization and by not properly operating and maintaining the diffuser pipeline for 105 days.

According to the complaint, Shell admitted that a leak from its diffuser pipeline began on or about Feb. 25, 2009, and claimed that it stopped discharging from the pipe on March 2. But the company later reported that it discharged through the pipeline during 14 days from Feb. 27 to March 30.

EPA noted that Shell’s alleged failure to properly maintain the diffuser pipeline is not an isolated incident; the most recent penalty is in addition to a penalty of $1.025 million the company paid in May for similar violations. A report issued on Dec. 31, 2008, indicated that two or three of Shell’s diffuser ports were totally covered by sand. Blockage by sand can prevent dilution of pollutants and cause a violation of water quality standards. Accordingly, EPA issued an Administrative Compliance Order (ACO) in March that required Shell to submit a plan to repair the leak and properly operate all ports of the diffuser. Despite the ACO, Shell failed to properly operate and maintain the diffuser from at least Dec. 31, 2008 to April 15, 2009, EPA said. That failure, in conjunction with the unauthorized discharges in February and March, led EPA to issue the most recent complaint.

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