Prove your humanity

A new investigation looks at the state’s struggle to monitor Shell’s petrochemical plant in Beaver County, which turns ethane from natural gas into plastic. News outlet PublicSource obtained emails between Shell and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, as well as internal agency documents, as part of a Right-to-Know request. 

PublicSource reporter Quinn Glabicki used these documents and public records to build a timeline of malfunctions at the plant and to show how state regulators responded, or didn’t. Shell has already racked up over a dozen air violations. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Glabicki about his reporting.

Listen to the interview:

Kara Holsopple: You write that from last September, when the plant was ramping up to operate, to this May, Shell reported 32 malfunctions at the cracker plant to the Department of Environmental Protection. What types of malfunctions were happening?

Quinn Glabicki: There’s been a whole litany of malfunctions. We’ve seen everything from burst seals, clogged strainers, poorly or incorrectly calibrated equipment, all things that result when a plant is starting up, things that haven’t been tested properly.

Kara Holsopple: And what kinds of pollution resulted? 

Quinn Glabicki: We’re seeing a lot of particulate pollution. But the main concern from this plant is volatile organic compounds, which or VOCs, including things like benzene, which is a carcinogen, or a number of other chemical compounds. 

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Kara Holsopple: You obtained voicemails from Shell employees to DEP about certain events. For example, Shell environmental engineer Alan Binder reported a flaring event to DEP on February 13. He said, “So we are smoking. I’m currently watching it from the office. It’s over 5 minutes at this point. And wanted to let you know as soon as I could here. And we’ll be following up, of course, with a malfunction report and estimate. It’s not an imminent threat to my, to my knowledge here.”

But there were complaints from the public. What happened in that instance, and how did Shell and DP respond? 

Quinn Glabicki: Flaring is basically when the plant sets fire to excess gases that it needs to burn off to relieve pressure and the flaring acts as a primary pollution control. So instead of just emitting those chemicals, they’re burnt off. But when you’re talking about a flaring event, there’s often excess emissions that come along with that because the flaring isn’t perfect.

Shell's massive ethane cracker facility

Shell’s ethane cracker on May 11, 2023. Photo: Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front

So on February 13th, Shell called the DEP to report a flaring incident, as they have on a number of occasions. They were going off of their elevated flare, which is kind of their secondary flare. And you can see in the footage of it that it’s kind of wafting away from the plant and this would actually be the only emergency response by the DEP to date at the facility.

The DEP dispatched their inspector who went to the facility, and when he got there, he spoke to a number of Shell employees who basically explained what had happened and also explained that one of the seals had broken, which had resulted in ethylene glycol being released on the plant’s property. Ethylene glycol is toxic and it can cause a whole bunch of issues to your nervous system skin, kidneys and respiratory system.

Kara Holsopple: How was the issue resolved?

Quinn Glabicki: Through the emails, we know that Shell surveyed the area, and they didn’t see any of the glycol on the public road or adjacent river. They said that they would resume their investigation in the morning. A month later, we saw an email that showed that an estimated 7,400 gallons of ethylene glycol had been released and that a portion of that had made it to the ground. Shell had observed a droplet pattern on the site’s roadways, and then they swept it.

Kara Holsopple: In another incident last Christmas Eve, Shell’s Kimberly Kaal called DEP and couldn’t get through.

Her voicemail said: “Hi, Scott. It’s Kim Kaall from Shell. Sorry to bother you on a holiday weekend. I tried to call the 4000 number twice and it said “We cannot connect your call to the Environmental Emergency, press two, I think it is. And maybe it’s three, whatever. And then I called the other one to leave an environmental complaint and it says, “Please try your call again later.” Anyway, so I’m calling you to let you know we are flaring this morning due to the freezing temperatures. We were having trouble with transmitters freezing and whatnot.” 

Quinn Glabicki: The DEP emergency phone line was down. They said the secondary complaint line was also down, and what we got were voicemails to a third cell phone of a DEP employee. That one, as is the case with most malfunctions, they go on for a few hours, they release a number of excess emissions, and then they resolve once Shell can kind of get the facility under control. 

Kara Holsopple: What do the emails, voicemails and other documents, like internal agency communications and public records that you looked at, as a whole tell you about how DEP is regulating the plant?

Quinn Glabicki: Well, this is a new challenge for the DEP. This is a new type of petrochemical facility, and it’s one that the state has really thrown its support behind financially. The emails show that their response in certain situations has been inconsistent.

Thinking back to December 24th, when they didn’t answer their emergency phone line, or even just looking at their inspection reports, which are public, and show that DEP isn’t really using any type of technical or sampling equipment when they’re on-site doing routine inspections.

You know, it really just kind of questions the agency’s capacity and just their methods of monitoring this point, given the context of a number of citizen complaints and obviously all of the malfunctions and issues and excess emissions that the plant has seen.

Kara Holsopple: What does it look like when DEP monitors the plant?

Quinn Glabicki: There are a number of different types of inspections that they do. They’re on site. They do routine inspections, sometimes several times a week. The procedure is they drive out to the facility. They park at different spots around the perimeter of the facility or across the river. They watch the facility for about an hour looking for visible emissions, which are an indication of Shell violating its permit. They also sniff the air for smells that shouldn’t be there. According to the inspection reports, that’s pretty much the extent of their routine inspections. 

Kara Holsopple: How has DEP responded to your questions about how it regulates the plant and how it handles complaints by the community?

Quinn Glabicki: DEP basically says that they are doing their best to monitor this facility. They say that even relative to some other facilities in the region, this one is getting more attention than others. 

Kara Holsopple: Did Shell comment on your reporting? 

Quinn Glabicki: No. 

Kara Holsopple: In May, Governor Shapiro announced a consent order and agreement between the state and Shell to address the many violations. What are its terms, and will it help address the issues at the plant and how DEP acts? 

Quinn Glabicki: The consent order and agreement acts as a blanket enforcement action for all of the issues that Shell has had during its start up. It levies a $10 million fine on the corporation, and nearly half of that, I should note, is going to be used for community projects in the upper Ohio River Valley. It remains to be seen what those will be.

The consent order also puts in more stringent monitoring and reporting requirements for Shell, which DEP says is going to shore up some of their issues. But we’ve also seen, based on citizen complaints and also camera footage, that these flaring issues have been persistent. There was a big flaring event on July 11th. 

Kara Holsopple: You’ve been following the Shell plant for some time. What did you learn through the process of reporting this story, which is really a timeline of these events?

Quinn Glabicki: It’s interesting because I had heard kind of piecemeal from other reporting or from people on the ground about all of these numerous issues that they were experiencing. The malfunction reports are public as well. But this really gave me a different perspective on what’s going on internally, both between Shell and the DEP and also just at the DEP with regards to the problems at the plant.

It gave me a sense that no one was really prepared for this on either side. They weren’t prepared for the amount of malfunctions, even though some were expected, and no one was expecting that Shell would burn through its pollution permits for the year in just a couple of months. 

Quinn Glabicki reports on climate and the environment for PublicSource. His investigation is “Inside Pennsylvania’s monitoring of the Shell petrochemical complex.