Prove your humanity

This story was supported in part by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. It’s the fifth in a series on pollution and misinformation in Pittsburgh from a consortium of outlets including The Allegheny Front, Ambridge Connection, The Incline, The Mon Valley Independent, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh Independent and Pittsburgh Union Progress.

When he first heard Shell was going to build a large chemical plant in Beaver County, Richard Russell says he was optimistic.

“Shell’s this international company, they were going to put $6 or $7 billion into this state-of-the-art facility…It seemed exciting,” said Russell, an assistant principal at a local cyber charter school. “You felt like …this is going to be big.”

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The plant is big – the largest construction project in the state since World War II, and the recipient of the largest tax break in state history at $1.65 billion over 25 years. 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.

By the time the plant first opened six months ago, it was clear the plant also brought problems, Russell said. For one thing, it lit up the night sky, especially when it was flaring.

“It is like a fire breathing dragon, on that higher flare,” he said. And the flares have been running a lot in the last six months.

flaring at Shell

A flare at Shell’s Beaver County ethane cracker on February 13, 2023. Courtesy of Breathe Project.

Flaring is a safety practice that allows chemical plants to burn gases off without putting workers at risk. The process releases volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which contribute to smog. Within a month of operation, the plant had already exceeded its yearly allotment for VOCs of 500 tons.

For Russell, the rough opening has raised questions.

“If they’re having this many problems now, are there [going to be] more problems?” he said. “I mean, they say they’ll get better, but this leaves a lot of questions.”

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Air violations and malfunctions since its startup

There other problems: A sulfuric acid spill. Strange odors. The plant has so far amassed over a dozen air quality violations from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. And it’s reported 43 malfunctions since the start of 2022. An ‘odor event’ in April subjected residents to smells they’ve described as burning plastic, an electrical fire, and gasoline.

On Thursday, May 11, two environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit against Shell for repeated violations of its air permit.

The DEP declined a request for comment on Shell’s problems during its first six months of operations. A spokeswoman said in an email the agency is “committed to a thorough investigation to fully understand and document the violations that have occurred at the facility” and that it would “hold Shell, like anyone else, accountable for any violations of environmental laws, regulations, and permits that are discovered.”

The plant is temporarily shut down while the company attempts repairs.

Shell didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but held an online community meeting. At that meeting, Christopher Kuhlman, an environmental contractor for the company said the April odor event resulted in elevated VOCs and benzene, a carcinogen, and made some workers sick.

“These symptoms usually go away once the odor is gone. And this was consistent with what we saw among workers who reported symptoms like headaches, eye irritation, watery eyes,” Kuhlman said.

Plant manager Bill Watson said during the meeting he expects the plant to eventually improve its operations, but said on a construction project this big, there are bound to be problems in the beginning.

“There’s millions and millions of moving parts that come together on the site, some very, very big, others very, very small. And it’s standard that it takes a while to get everything up and running smoothly,” Watson said.

Questions about the cracker’s future

That may be so, but Russell, of Brighton Township, thinks Shell’s performance so far will make many nearby question the plant’s long-term future.

“I don’t think anything is more important than your health and safety and your longevity,” Russell said. “And, you know, you may have to come to the hard decision of do I want to live near this neighbor or am I going to move?”

Still a lot of people are happy that the plant is here. Deena Wherry lives in Beaver Falls, about six miles from the Potter Township facility. She admits she might live too far from the ethane cracker to experience any of its air or light pollution. But she knows several people who’ve gotten jobs at the plant and think’s it’s been good for the local economy.

“I think it’s [had] a big impact on the community. It’s brought in a lot of business, a lot of people from out of town and brought in a lot of revenue,” Wherry said.

At the height of construction, Shell employed 9,000 workers. Now, the employment level is around 600.

Still, even some of the most ardent Shell supporters are beginning to show concern.

“I defend the industry, but I can’t defend how the plant is being run,” said Beaver County Commissioner Jack Manning. Manning used to work in the petrochemical industry and defends it from its critics. He isn’t worried the pollution at the plant poses long-term risks for local residents, but told company officials that his patience with their mistakes won’t last forever.

“I’ve…told people, ‘If you cross a line that shouldn’t be crossed, we’re going to have a different conversation. And I can’t defend you.’ And right now, nobody’s crossed that line,” Manning said.

Shell officials say they know they have to improve. There’s no timeline for when the plant will go back online.

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