Two environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Shell for repeated violations of its air permit at its ethane cracker in Beaver County, along the Ohio River.
“Shell needs to truly clean up its act and make sure that it is not imposing illegal pollution and health risks on the community,” said Alex Bomstein, legal director of Clean Air Council, which filed the lawsuit in coordination with the Environmental Integrity Project in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.
People have already reported breathing difficulties and headaches they associate with the release of pollutants from the plant, Bomstein said.
The suit calls for Shell to remedy and prevent “repeated and ongoing violations” of the Clean Air Act and the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act, in its emissions of volatile organic compounds(VOCs), nitrogen oxides and visible emissions from its flares.
Every 12 months, Shell is allowed to emit a certain amount of each of these pollutants. When it comes to VOCs, “They have exceeded that rolling 12-month limit every month since September of 2022,” according to Jennifer Duggan, deputy director of the Environmental Integrity Project. For nitrogen oxides, “They have exceeded that 12-month limit every month since December of 2022,” she said.
Duggan said visible flares are prohibited under Shell’s permit for more than 5 minutes during any two consecutive hours.
“The reason is that black smoke from flares indicate that the flare is not operating properly,” she said. “When we see black smoke from flares, we know that it’s releasing dangerous air pollution like fine particulate matter, benzene and other pollution.”
Benzene is a carcinogen that can cause long term health problems.
According to the lawsuit, visible flaring at the Shell plant exceeded the five minutes within a consecutive two hour period multiple times.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued about a dozen notices of permit violations to Shell since the plant opened last year.
In February, the environmental groups filed a legal notice of their intent to sue Shell for the air violations.
“It’s been past the 60 days, and Shell has not taken action to address these concerns. And DEP or EPA has not initiated a formal enforcement action,” Duggan said.
She noted that in the past week there was a fire at a Shell chemical plant in Houston, where the company had nearly 2000 environmental violations, according to Texas state records, as reported by Oil and Gas Watch.
The Pennsylvania DEP said in an email that it is reviewing Thursday’s court filing, and is also investigating the permit violations, “We will hold Shell, like anyone else, accountable for any violations of environmental laws, regulations, and permits that are discovered,” said agency spokesperson Lauren Camarda
In response to the lawsuit, Shell said it is committed to complying with county, state and federal regulations.
“And when there is an issue, we work to fix it,” said company spokesperson Curtis Thomas in an email. “We learn from those issues and work to improve so that we can be the good environmental steward, neighbor, and business partner this region wants and deserves.”
He noted that production at the plant has been temporarily shut down and will remain offline while Shell addresses an issue with the flaring system, which led to a DEP notice of violation earlier this year.
5/12/23 This post has been updated to include comments from PA DEP.