Shell has agreed to pay $10 million to Pennsylvania for violating state air quality regulations after the startup of the company’s Beaver County ethane cracker.
The plant started operations in November and has already racked up over a dozen air violations, including many related to flaring, and reported 43 malfunctions since the beginning of 2022.
Shell received a $1.65 billion tax credit, the largest in state history, to build the plant, which will turn natural gas into plastic.
Under terms of a consent agreement with the state, Shell will repair its flaring equipment to prevent unlawful pollution.
In an email, Curtis Thomas, a company spokesperson, said that Shell has worked with regulators “to fix plant issues” that have led to the plant’s violations.
“We’ve learned from previous issues and pledge to be the safe environmental steward, good neighbor, and business partner this region wants and deserves,” Thomas said.
The plant reopened Wednesday after being shut down for repairs for two months, according to a statement issued by Gov. Josh Shapiro.
Under the terms of the agreement, Shell will pay a civil penalty of $4.9 million, 25 percent of which will be directed to local communities. The company will spend another $5 million on environmental projects in local communities. A total of $6.2 million will go toward local communities in Western Pennsylvania. Shell will also pay additional monthly civil penalties for the rest of the year if it continues to exceed its allotted air pollution limits.
“Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air and pure water, and my Administration will hold all companies – no matter how big or small – accountable when they violate the laws and regulations protecting our air and water,” Shapiro said.
“Shell recognizes that as a company, it must do better, and this $6.2 million commitment to the people of Western Pennsylvania is a down payment on that progress,” he added.
Rich Negrín, acting DEP secretary, said the consent agreement was a step the state was taking to “hold Shell accountable.”
“We know that Shell can operate a state-of-the-art facility that helps grow our economy without harming the environment, and we are going to hold them to the requirements laid out in their permits,” Negrin said. “We are going to make sure that they are good neighbors to this community, and we will be hearing from and working closely with the residents of Beaver County to make sure this $5 million [civil penalty] is an investment into the community and the people that live there.”
Problems from the start
Since starting up in November, the plant has had a number of problems and drawn worries from nearby residents. There was a sulfuric acid spill, strange odors, and several events that caused the plant to flare excess gases.
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).
“Shell attributed some of these emissions to malfunctions and anticipates additional exceedances of its 12-month total emission limitations during the commissioning phase into autumn 2023, but not during normal operations,” according to the governor’s statement.
An “odor event” in April subjected residents to smells they’ve described as burning plastic, an electrical fire, and gasoline. At an online community meeting in April, a company contractor said the event resulted in elevated VOCs and benzene, a carcinogen, and caused workers at the plant to report headaches, eye irritation, and watery eyes.
On top of the fine, the plant faces a federal lawsuit from two environmental groups for repeated violations of its air permit.
As part of a consent agreement between the company and DEP, Shell 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.
Since suspending production in March, the company has performed repairs and maintenance on the plant. “Results of …recent simulations showed that adequate steam can be provided to the elevated flare prior to restarting operations in order to prevent unlawful smoke emissions,” the governor’s statement said. “The [consent agreement] requires the situation be monitored and requires Shell to renew the compliance guarantee monthly until the flares are repaired. A detailed simulation report on the steam system is also required by the [agreement].”
The company recently reported a nearly $10 billion profit for the first quarter of 2023.
Matthew Mehalik of the Breathe Project said he was grateful that the company is paying the fine, but worries the plant will continue to pollute.
“What we’re concerned about is yet another pay-to-pollute relationship budding on the horizon here,” he said. “We cannot allow another entity to engage in pay-to-pollute behavior that comes at the expense of our region’s residents and allow the fines to be perceived as charitable donations to our communities. Our region deserves better.”
Andie Grey of the community group Eyes on Shell said in a statement that the pollution from the plant has already hurt the community around it. “[T]here is no price tag that will allow for this to be acceptable,” said Grey of nearby Center Township. “Shell has repeatedly exceeded generous allowances, with little to no communication about the levels of pollutants being released.”
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.