Ever since Shell’s plan to build a petrochemical plant along the Ohio River was announced, activists have been working to learn about the potential health and environmental risks and to warn residents.
Terrie Baumgardner is one of them. She is the Clean Air Council Outreach Coordinator for Beaver County and a volunteer with the local grassroots organization, Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, or BCMAC.
“I do whatever is needed to bring awareness to people about the impacts of the petrochemical buildout,” Baumgardner said.
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Baumgardner lives in Aliquippa, a few miles as the crow flies from the ethane cracker site. She’s a retired communications professor and said she got engaged with environmental action over fracking in 2011. For her, the cracker seemed like an extension of that gas development, though there were no solid plans to build in Beaver County then.
With other concerned residents, she attended an informational meeting about the cracker in 2014 hosted by Shell.
“I have grandchildren and I know what it means for their future. Not just this plant, but the whole buildout in the region that is supporting this.”
“I think a lot of us were still in denial because there was still talk of maybe the plant locating somewhere else,” Baumgardner said.
In 2016, when the former Horsehead zinc plant in Monaca was announced as the future site of Shell’s new petrochemical plant, Baumgardner said she knew there was no going back.
“I have grandchildren and I know what it means for their future. Not just this plant, but the whole buildout in the region that is supporting this,” she said. “The more I learned, the more convinced I was, yeah, you got to do everything you can to speak out and hope other people will, too.”
- The Coming Chemical Boom – The Allegheny Front’s ongoing coverage of the petrochemical industry in Pa.
- Surveying the Ohio River for plastic nurdles, as Shell readies to open cracker
- In Beaver County, a mix of hope and fear over the startup of Shell’s ethane cracker
In the fall of 2016, she learned that Clean Air Council was looking for people to canvas for signatures on a petition in support of fenceline air monitoring at the plant, where Shell would be required to test for pollutants along the site’s boundary.
“I thought, could I do this? I had never gone door to door with anything before,” Baumgardner said.
A more extroverted friend offered to help, and Baumgardner said they ended up with over 750 signatures. In 2018 Clean Air Council and Environmental Integrity Project did win the two-year legal battle to get fenceline monitoring at the plant.
Baumgardner said over the years there have been a lot of milestones, like a comprehensive health impacts guide put out by Clean Air Council early on, and a series of meetings to re-imagine a green future for Beaver County that doesn’t rely on gas development. She said it’s a movement that’s still growing.
“There was a point where a lot of people didn’t know the questions to ask. Then there was a point where they didn’t quite know where they stood, and then there was a point where they were sort of resigned, once the construction started,” Baumgardner said. “There’s a range of attitudes.”
Focusing on air monitoring
She said now that the cracker is preparing to go online this summer, the focus is on community air monitoring. BCMAC hosts Eyes on Shell community watchdog meetings virtually, once a month, and Baumgardner said she hopes through them even more people will come together and feel empowered.
“Hopefully by now people are recognizing that the petrochemical buildout is encroaching on their residential lives and it’s coming ever closer to homes and schools and hospitals,”
She also has high hopes for a recently launched protective buffers campaign, which seeks state-mandated setbacks for nine types of gas infrastructure, from gas wells and compressor stations to the cracker plant.
“Hopefully by now people are recognizing that the petrochemical buildout is encroaching on their residential lives and it’s coming ever closer to homes and schools and hospitals,” Baumgardner said.
For a cracker plant, the campaign’s recommended setback is 9,842 ft from any occupied building.
“That doesn’t mean you’re absolutely protected,” Baumgardner said. “These emissions are invisible. So people don’t see it the way they saw the soot that fell on their porches, with the larger particulate matter. The smaller is dangerous in a very different way. It gets into your bloodstream and exacerbates asthma.”
Recommendations for Shell
Baumgardner wrote a blog post last month that incorporates eight points from Clean Air Council and BCMAC on how Shell could go above and beyond what’s legally required to protect the environment and public health, like reporting in real-time to residents about spills or accidental releases and voluntarily reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or buying offsets for them.
In an email to The Allegheny Front, a Shell spokesperson said that the company is committed to being a good neighbor. And that the health and safety of its people, the environment and the community are its top priorities.
And recently, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Shell met with state environmental regulators to discuss preliminary plans to capture carbon dioxide from the plant and sequester it underground. Though Shell said it has no well permit applications with DEP at this time.
Baumgardner says it’s hard to fully measure the impact that the many local groups and activists working on these issues have had on Shell, or on residents in nearby communities. Though their strategy has changed, their battle–as she calls it–continues.
“People do not change their perspective 180 degrees as a result of any one thing they see or hear or read,” she said. “Maybe they move 10 degrees on the dial in the other direction and then they hear something else or someone they trust says something that resonates with them and they move again. It’s a long, gradual process.”