Prove your humanity

Area residents and clean air advocates staged a rally Thursday in Beaver County to protest pollution from Shell’s recently completed ethane cracker. 

They brought up pollution worries from the East Palestine derailment and the numerous releases from the Shell chemical plant. They also requested better and more timely information about hazardous air releases at the plant or for the plant to be shut down until it stops polluting the nearby air. 

“They’ve been having malfunctions. They’ve been going over their [pollution] limits. And they simply need to be told that this is not okay. We’re not going to stand for this,” said Rachel Meyer of nearby Independence Township. 

Meyer, a local organizer with Mom’s Clean Air Force, said local and state government needs to hold the company accountable for the number of pollution events that have occurred at the plant since it began operations in November.

“We were…led to believe this would be a good thing for the community. And it’s just not at all worth any of the economic gains that it’s brought,” she said.

Shell’s air pollution problems have some in Beaver County questioning its ability to be a good neighbor

Shell received a $1.65 billion tax credit, the largest in state history, to build the plant, which will turn natural gas into plastic. Around 8,000 people worked to build the plant over the past six years. Currently, the cracker employs 600 people. 

But members of the surrounding community who came to the rally said the plant’s pollution episodes have been a blight. 

Shell exceeded its rolling 12-month total emission limitations for volatile organic compounds (VOC) from the beginning of October 2022 through April 2023. It also exceeded its limits for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and hazardous air pollutants (HAP).

“I want them to stop production of the Shell plant or to work harder to eliminate the emissions,” said Natalie Leslie of Chippewa Township in Beaver County. “They’re having constant violations, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem for them because they’re such a large corporation. They don’t take the time to care about the people that live here.”

Shell restarted operations last month after agreeing to pay a $10 million state fine for violating several air quality regulations. The company reported a $9 billion profit in the first quarter of 2023 – or around $100 million in profits per day. 

In an email statement, Shell’s spokesperson said, “We’ve learned from previous issues, and we will continue to report out and comply with all regulations while also applying lessons learned and best practices to ensure our operations have the least amount of negative impact on people and the environment.”

County commissioners respond

The rally was scheduled to coincide with a meeting of the Beaver County commissioners. 

Once inside the meeting, residents repeated their demands to the county’s three commissioners, who said they shared concerns about the plant but said they don’t have regulatory jurisdiction over it — Pennsylvania does. 

Commissioner Daniel Camp said that in recent months he and the other commissioners have tried to push Shell to improve operations. 

“Our simple [message] was ‘Do better, do better. We have to do better for our residents. You’re supposed to be a good neighbor to Beaver County,’” Camp said. “We expressed that you are not [being] a good neighbor. Now we’ve expressed it to them. How high that goes up their chain of command? We don’t know.”

As part of the consent agreement signed with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last month, the company is required to get approvals to repair its ground flares, an engineering evaluation of its pollution controls, and approvals for any additional pollution controls. The company will also have to report emissions on a monthly basis. 

When fully operational, the plant will produce 3.5 billion pounds of plastic a year by converting ethane, a component of natural gas, into polyethylene, a common plastic.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.