Shell Oil Fined $2.9 Million for Pollution Error

Shell Oil Products has paid nearly $2.9 million in penalties and restricted production at its Northern California refinery following a March equipment failure that sent 925 tons of excess carbon monoxide into the air, regulators said Wednesday.

The pollution-causing emissions escaped the refinery in Martinez over the course of a week after three boilers that simultaneously produce steam and control the plant's carbon monoxide output shut down, said Karen M. Schkolnick, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The fine reflects the size of the incident and the fact that human errors compounded the situation, according to Schkolnick.

"It was a series of either bad judgments or mechanical failures and it led to this acute situation," she said.

While carbon monoxide levels at the refinery are back within federal clean air limits, Shell will have to work hard over the next 10 months to meet the conditions of its operating permit because the Air District calculates compliance as a yearlong average, she said.

"Because those numbers were so high during that seven-day period, it will take them a whole year to purge those numbers," Schkolnick said. After 365 days, Shell has agreed to pay $10,000 a day for every day the Martinez facility's emissions exceed clean air limits.

Steve Lesher, a refinery spokesman, said Shell did not contest the Air District's claims but is proud of its pollution control record.

"We have rigorous maintenance standards, and you hope something like this never happens and you work to make sure it doesn't happen," Lesher said. "We have never bumped up against our CO limit before, but we are only as good as our recent performance."

Shell Oil Products is a subsidiary of Shell Oil.