Oil from old Shell tanks polluting the Little Belt

Decade-old leaks fouling beaches and groundwater, but the company says it’s not responsible for clean-up

Decade-old oil spills from tanks at the Shell Oil facility in Fredericia are still polluting the environment. 

According to a report on the DR current affairs TV program '21 Søndags', tonnes of diesel and kerosene have flowed out of the tanks for years and are now polluting the soil and groundwater in the area and flowing into the Little Belt.

“I would say that a very, very strong oil spill has spread out below the beach and seeped beneath the Little Belt into the water,” Thomas Steen Petersen, an engineer and soil expert at Kogsgaard Environment, told DR.

“We must assume it has been going on for two or three decades. I have never seen anything like this before.”

Collection efforts failed
The initial spills occurred some time in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1985, the authorities discovered that several of the old tanks were corroded and leaking oil directly into the ground. Experts estimated then that about 150,000 gallons of oil had leaked from the tanks.

Shell first constructed collection wells after the discovery of the leaks in the 1980s. But in 2011, it was discovered that the collection wells did not work and oil was still leaking. 

The latest tests have revealed that the oil content in groundwater under the beach is 9,000 times higher than the permissible limits.

The beaches near Østerstrand have been closed indefinitely.

Shell not required to clean up the problem
The government has no authority to force Shell to clean up its mess. Shell said that it would once again attempt to stop the oil leakage, but would not commit to more.

“We are taking one thing at a time,” Shell spokesperson Regitze Reeh told DR. “We will start by focusing on the terminal and then evaluate what will happen to the beach.”

READ MORE: Greenpeace activists invade Shell refinery

Reeh emphasises that Shell lived up to its legal obligations, both then and now.

“Some of the tanks are almost a hundred years old,” she said. “Environmental regulations were different in the 70s and 80s.”

Reeh said that the company fixed any cracks caused by corrosion that it discovered during regular inspections. She acknowledged that the collection wells did not work.

“No. We have found, on our own initiative, that they may not have worked,” she said.

Taxpayers could foot the bill
If Shell decides not to pay for the beach clean-up, a bill of somewhere between 50 and 100 million kroner will wind up in the hands of taxpayers. Peter Pagh, a professor of environmental law at the University of Copenhagen, said that these cases in which companies declined to clean up there own mess were becoming too common.

“We are facing a very big problem that the authorities were aware of for a long time,” Pagh told DR. “They did little or nothing about it, and now it's getting worse. When environmental problems are postponed, we get the bill 30 years later.”