Prove your humanity

Shell’s Beaver County ethane cracker exceeded state air pollution limits during the months it was preparing to open this fall.


The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation against the company for going over its limit for volatile organic compounds, chemicals that create smog.

Shell says the pollution was a result of flaring while it attempted to begin operations at the plant, which makes plastic pellets out of ethane, a component of natural gas.

“Several factors contributed to the additional flaring during startup, all related to the complexities of commissioning brand new systems and equipment that make up one of the largest construction projects in the country,” said Curtis Thomas, a company spokesman, in a statement.

“Though flaring acts as a contingency to combust gases before they enter the atmosphere, no violation is acceptable.”

During malfunctions and other events at chemical plants, companies often flare, or burn off, gases they would otherwise have to vent to the atmosphere.

The plant is permitted to be the state’s second-biggest emitter of VOCs. Shell reported a release of 521.6 tons of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in a 12-month period through the end of September, and 662.9 tons in the 12 months ending in October.

Each 12-month period that exceeds Shell’s yearly limit of 516.2 tons is a violation. It almost blew past that limit in September alone, with 510.89 tons reported to the DEP in that month. That number decreased to 141.84 tons in October. The DEP said other pollutants, like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hazardous air pollutants, all were elevated during September and October, but had not exceeded the company’s permitted allowances. 

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said the exceedances were “not good for public health” because VOCs can contribute to respiratory illnesses like asthma.

“When you see the orange flare, it means conditions at the plant are out of normal operation,” Mehalik said in an email. “People should check air monitors, protect themselves and keep their eyes on Shell.”

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DEP spokeswoman Lauren Camarda said the agency has asked Shell for an analysis of why the flaring took place and a plan to minimize flaring in the future. It could take further action against Shell, like issuing fines, she said.

“Right now, we’re gathering more data. We’re looking at our ambient air monitoring network. We’ve asked Shell for more information on their operations, and we’re awaiting that.”

The plant opened in November and received a $1.65 billion Pennsylvania tax credit, the largest in state history.

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.