Cheryl and Luke Hardy moved to Beaver County in 2012. Luke came from Albany, New York, where he was finishing graduate school, and Cheryl, from Washington, D.C.
The location of Beaver County was equidistant from their jobs – Luke’s at a university in Ohio and Cheryl’s in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
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They eventually bought a house in Beaver, an attractive town on the Ohio River with historic homes and a walkable business district. The couple enjoyed events and festivals in town and going to restaurants there. When their children were born, they walked them to a nearby playground and thought of someday walking them to the nearby elementary school.
They barely noticed in 2016 when Shell announced it was building a multi-billion dollar plastics plant, called an ethane cracker, across the river. As construction workers began building the massive plant, it became harder to ignore every time they drove their kids to daycare.
“Every day, twice a day, we had to drive past it, and you could see just incrementally the project developing,” Luke said. “It was just getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
One night, as he was tucking his children into bed, Luke Hardy saw something new out of the window – a recently finished tower at the plant.
The more they learned about the cracker, especially its ability to emit millions of pounds of air pollution a year, the less they liked the idea of living within eyeshot.
So last year, they left Beaver County and bought a house 15 miles away in Allegheny County, near the Pittsburgh International Airport.
“It was scary, you know, to have it right across the river from our house and our family,” Cheryl said. “If something would have happened accidentally, and our kids…it just scared us.”
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- The Coming Chemical Boom: reporting on petrochemical development in Western Pa. by The Allegheny Front
A reason to leave
Shell’s ethane cracker will begin operations this summer. It will turn natural gas from fracking into 1.6 million metric tons of plastic a year. Built with a $1.65 billion state tax credit, the largest in state history, the cracker has been hailed by many of the region’s political and economic power brokers as a way to reverse years of population loss and economic decline. But for some people, it’s just the opposite: a reason to leave.
It’s hard to know how many people the cracker will drive away, as it did the Hardys.
Census numbers showed an uptick in population while more than 8,000 workers, many from outside of Pennsylvania, came to Beaver County to build the plant, followed by a population decline after 2020. But the Hardys are not alone – they know three other couples considering leaving.
Among these are Matt Stewart and Jackie Shock-Stewart. They live in Brighton Township, about 5 miles from the plant. The couples’ backyard faces out onto a lush hillside that descends into woods below, where Matt, a city planner, built a series of short trails.
“I feel strongly that western Pennsylvania is such a beautiful place — like this landscape is… I mean, it’s amazing,” Stewart said.
He understands people need to work, and the cracker has brought construction jobs. When completed, it will employ 600 permanent workers. But as he watched the cracker rise, with essentially unanimous support from local politicians and many in the community, it soured him on living in Beaver County.
“That’s kind of why I don’t know if I want to be here – because it’s just not part of the culture, respecting the land,” Stewart said.
For Jackie Shock-Stewart, her fears are more personal. She has pored over research and news reports about the plant, including warnings from environmental groups about air pollution. One map from the Environmental Health Project caught her eye. (EHP receives funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.)
“We looked at projection maps projecting particularly risky areas with air quality – the elementary school is rated right in the high-risk area,” she said. “Our children are going to be spending 8 hours a day in a high-risk area.”
Company and regulators say it’s safe
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection maintains the cracker won’t push the region’s air quality over federal pollution limits. Shell has agreed to monitor air quality around the plant and, in written materials, has said it is following all state and federal laws.
Still, the couple has decided to leave, heading west to Ohio, where Stewart recently accepted a job in his hometown. They know not everyone in Beaver County can do the same.
“I kind of feel for those people that this is home and they can’t easily move. They don’t want to have to move,” Stewart said.
County leaders say they’re not worried about any kind of exodus. Jack Manning, a Beaver County commissioner who used to work in the petrochemical industry, said he’s confident the plant will be safe and that it will help rebuild the area’s industrial base.
“It would be nice if we can all sit around the Starbucks and all make a living by sitting on our laptops and typing away and texting people back and forth,” Manning said. “But as an economy…if we aren’t making things for a living, if people aren’t using our hands and their minds and we’re just trying to be a service economy, I don’t see how we survive in that kind of an environment.”
Leaving for tech jobs
For David Walker, who spent much of his life in Beaver County, the cracker was a reason to leave the area. He’d hoped his children would be able to grow up there and have opportunities in fields like technology or medicine. Instead, he said, Beaver County is trying to recapture something from its past.
“This Shell plant is simply a repeat of what we saw in the ’70s in the industry, in the steel mills,” Walker said. “I grew up with a family that worked in the steel mills, so I didn’t want to see my kids go down this direction.”
Last year, Walker moved with his wife and three kids to the Raleigh, North Carolina area, where he works in tech. Apple is building a billion-dollar campus there, with plans to employ 3,000 skilled workers.
“Looking at where, say, North Carolina and this county is going, and their plans for directions in medical, biotech, and technology, that gives us more opportunity down here,” he said.
Back at the Hardys’ house, Luke shows off their new back deck. There’s a fenced-in yard, which is good for their two dogs and the couple’s two kids. “It’s quiet in the backyard, and we like the deck,” he said.
There’s the not-so-occasional airplane overhead, but he doesn’t seem to mind. It’s much more private than the front porch in Beaver, where neighbors dropped by and sometimes had long conversations. Luke says he misses the old house, being able to walk to a store, and those neighbors.
“We would have lived in Beaver. You know, the kids would have gone to school there,” he said. “I don’t think we would have even had a conversation about moving because there wouldn’t have been any reason to.”
The Hardys say they hope they are wrong about the ethane cracker — that it will be safe for those nearby. But they aren’t willing to bet their future — or their children’s — on a hope.
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.