Shell Discharges Untreated Firefighting Water From Massive Blaze

HCSO photo of Deer Park smoke plume
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez / HCSO

Published May 8, 2023 11:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

A massive quantity of firefighting water was discharged into the Houston Ship Channel during the three-day blaze at Shell's Deer Park petchem plant, the company confirmed on Monday. 

The fire broke out Friday during maintenance in the plant's olefins unit. Fed by gasoil, it burned through until Saturday, when firefighters managed to extinguish the flames. 15 people were brought to a hospital for evaluation, but none sustained serious injuries and all were released in short order. 

The fire reignited later on Saturday and burned until it was extinguished for good on Sunday. 

As a result of the large amount of water needed to bring the fire under control, on-site wastewater storage capacity was exceeded, Shell said in an update Monday. Since there was no space to store it, and rainy weather would further fill up the onsite ponds, the runoff water was diverted into the ship channel. At peak flow, the facility was discharging about 11,000 gallons per minute of untreated firefighting water. Booms were deployed to contain any floating contaminants on the surface. Meanwhile, new water was added to retention ponds in order to make sure that enough would be available for post-fire cooling, which could last up to 36 hours. 

As of Monday, the fire was extinguished, though Shell's responders were still addressing hot spots on scene. The water discharge into the ship channel has been shut down, plant manager Nathan Levin told local media.

Federal, state and local environmental agencies are monitoring water and air quality. The nature and concentration of any contaminants in the water discharge are not yet known. According to Shell and Texas regulators, airborne emissions from the fire posed no risk to local communities. 

The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality has fined the Deer Park plant in the past for excess avoidable emissions, and this may factor into any penalties for the fire, the agency told local ABC 13. The EPA has fined it more than $400,000 in five years, and OSHA cited it for "serious" undescribed workplace hazards in 2020. 

Kelly Cook, deputy director at TCEQ, told Houston Public Media that the facility's firefighting water discharge over the weekend was unauthorized, and that the agency wants any water contained on site to be properly treated before release.