PROVIDENCE — An environmental group is demanding Shell Oil reveal how involved its corporate headquarters has been in managing its waterfront oil storage terminal in Providence, which the group claims is woefully unprepared for extreme weather, putting the area at risk of a toxic spill.
After an unusually wet summer that plagued Rhode Island with flooding, the Conservation Law Foundation, or CLF, filed a motion this week in US District Court in Providence, demanding that the oil and gas giant answer basic questions about “high-level involvement” of the Netherlands-based multinational corporation in its Rhode Island terminal. The company “must identify each person who has had responsibilities for environmental compliance” at the terminal, the foundation said in court documents. This information is relevant for liability purposes, the motion said, as those who are higher up in the chain of command “likely have knowledge of, or responsibilities for implementing, controlling policies” at the terminal.
The motion, which was filed Thursday, is the latest in a series of a lawsuits the environmental advocacy organization has filed against the company related to the Rhode Island property since 2017.
Shell’s Providence terminal was built on filled land at sea level, and is located in a flood zone. The environmental group claims Shell’s Providence facility is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and, if compromised, its 25 storage tanks could potentially leak toxic pollutants, including oil, into Narragansett Bay and the Providence River.
Lawyers for the foundation accuse Shell of violating the Clean Water Act and other laws by failing to prepare the Providence facility for near-term climate change impacts, such as extreme weather. On their website and in court documents, the environmental group claims Shell has “failed to use good engineering practices in the design and operation” of the facility’s wastewater treatment system. “That means rain has caused — and will continue to cause — both untreated and undertreated discharges of dangerous pollutants into our waters,” says CLF on its website.
The case is currently in its discovery phase, and both sides are required to produce information relevant to the lawsuit. But foundation spokesman Jake O’Neill said in a news release Friday that Shell has “refused” to answer questions that implicate high-level Shell parent companies and officials who direct and control operations at the terminal.
Some of the evidence Shell has turned over includes photos of what CLF calls “contaminated areas” of the oil company’s Providence facility, which flooded during a December 2022 storm. The flooding “shows how vulnerable the terminal is to weather conditions that will be made worse by climate change,” said O’Neill.
“While Shell tries every trick in the book to avoid coming clean about its involvement in the climate crisis, our community is in danger,” said Darrèll Brown, vice president of CLF Rhode Island.
A Shell spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment by the Globe on Friday.
In court documents, Shell has repeatedly claimed that its 75-acre facility in Providence is compliant with the federal Clean Water Act, and that CLF’s allegations are exaggerated and speculative.
Shell sought to have the suit dismissed. In September 2020, US District Court Judge William Smith denied the company’s claims that CLF’s allegations were solely based on future climate projections.
Oil storage facilities have spilled toxic chemicals during extreme weather events in other parts of the country over the last several decades, with devastating impacts on the environment and public health.
In 2017, the impact of Hurricane Harvey triggered a spill of more than 461,000 gallons of gasoline in Texas, where as many as 100 toxic chemical spills polluted air and water.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused more than 300,000 gallons of gasoline to spill from Motiva petroleum terminals in New Jersey. Louisiana faced 540 oil spills after Hurricane Katrina, where oil could be seen leaking from storage tanks and broken pipelines between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River. The oil was pushed further inland by Hurricane Rita, just three weeks later. Altogether, federal officials told ProPublica that they estimated the leaks released the same amount of oil that the 1989 Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound — about 10.8 million gallons.
These types of post-hurricane spills in other parts of the country could “devastate” Rhode Island, CLF lawyers have argued, particularly South Providence, where Shell’s facility is located. Neighborhoods there are predominantly low-income, home to immigrants and people of color.
“Major risks exist now and they’re only going to get worse as the oceans rise and storms intensify,” said Brown.