Val Brkich grew up in Beaver County. The 42-year-old is just a hair too young to remember the prime days of the county’s steel industry, when steel mills roared along the banks of the Ohio River.
“When I was born the mills were still running,” he says. “But by the time I was 10 years old or so they were pretty much shut down.”
Many well-paying jobs left the county, but so did a lot of air pollution.
Brkich doesn’t want to see the pollution return. That’s why the freelance writer and father of two was against the Shell plant going in less than two miles from his house in the town of Beaver.
“Having two young kids, trying to raise two young kids, and then you hear that the chemicals they release, some of them are known carcinogens,” he says. “I just think that the long term effects on the environment and on our health is not going to justify the number of jobs it’s going to create.”
LISTEN: Shell’s Pennsylvania Chemical Plant Brings Hope for Jobs, Fear of Pollution
Beaver County’s air already fails to meet federal air quality standards. Shell’s plant will be a major source of a variety of pollutants, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. It will emit chemicals that make smog and particle pollution, which have been linked to heart and lung diseases, and cancer-causing chemicals.
But the DEP has approved the plant’s emissions control strategy, including a plan to use emissions credits Shell bought from closed down industrial facilities, and the company is expecting to begin construction on the $6 billion plant this fall.
Shell’s vast construction site along the Ohio River was relatively quiet on a recent afternoon. Workers sprayed down a pair of cement trucks and a utility crew worked on a power line.
When it’s up and running, it will produce an estimated annual amount of 1.6 million tons of ethylene, a precursor for thousands of plastic products, ranging from food packaging to medical devices. Pennsylvania gave Shell $1.65 billion in tax breaks to build it.
To cut down on its pollution, the company will build scrubbers to reduce emissions from its furnaces, which will “crack” the natural gas from the region and turn it into the building blocks of plastics.
It will also conduct continuous monitoring of those furnaces and routinely check for leaks, and use modern, low-emissions equipment and storage tanks to handle potentially dangerous gases. The DEP says the plant will use vapor capture on some of its equipment to limit the release of air toxics.
But environmental groups want the company to go further, and have sued to force the company to conduct fenceline monitoring of the plant to test whether any gases are escaping from the site.
Shell’s permitted to release up to 30 tons a year of hazardous air pollutants. These are a group of more than 180 toxic chemicals the EPA tracks, including known or suspected carcinogens.
A University of Pittsburgh scientist found the plant would add air pollution equivalent to an extra 36,000 cars.
John Graham, an atmospheric chemist and senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, says fenceline monitoring is an easy way to assure the community the cracker is safe.
“The simplest thing to do is just measure it and confirm that either it is or isn’t a problem. Hopefully it’s not a problem,” Graham says.
The DEP decided Shell’s pollution controls were enough, and that fenceline monitoring wasn’t necessary.
In an emailed statement, Shell spokesman Michael Marr said the company was “agreeable” to the idea. But the company hasn’t finalized anything yet.
The statement stressed that the cracker is replacing the Horseheads zinc smelter, a large emitter of lead and other heavy metals, and that the company believes it can have “a vibrant modern manufacturing facility co-existing with a healthy community.”
In emailed answers to questions for the DEP Bureau of Air Quality, agency spokesman Neil Shader said the plant’s air permit includes “extensive conditions and reporting requirements” to monitor the plant’s emissions controls and other systems.
But Graham isn’t just concerned about Shell’s cracker. The region could support several more like it, and he worries Beaver County could some day look like Louisiana, where chemical facilities line both banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
EPA recently found one part of that corridor had by far the largest cancer risk from air pollution than any other part of the country.
“Comparing that part of the country to other parts of the country–it’s just night and day,” he says. “And so there’s a potential for that kind of you know if you get that amount of development in Beaver County you could move the same direction.”
But lots of people in Beaver County aren’t worried about having too many chemical plants. They like the jobs those plants would create.
At the height of the estimated four-year construction period, Shell’s ethane cracker will employ 6,000 workers. Developers are building hotels nearby to house the workforce, and local unions are training apprentices to fill construction jobs. When it’s completed, the cracker will employ 600 people.
Outside the Beaver Valley mall, Bobby Wilson says the plant is a net positive for the region. Wilson is a pastor of a church in the town of Beaver Falls, where some of his congregants are trying to get work on the plant’s construction.
“We weren’t here during the steel mill age,” he said. “Our parents, our grandparents did it, and now, we just need the opportunity to be able to make money for our families because the area’s suppressed, quite frankly.”
Gary Rombold is also excited for Shell to come to the area, and thinks it will be much cleaner than the industry of old.
“I grew up in the 50s with the steel mills, where you couldn’t lay out sometimes in the daytime to get a tan because of the smoke and the soot,” said Rombold, of New Brighton.
Rombold has a son who had to leave the area to find a job. He thinks Shell’s plant could reverse the trend of young people leaving Beaver County.
“There has to be a happy medium, and I don’t think (Shell) down there (is) going to create any pollution, I really don’t. In today’s world you can’t do that.”
His optimism isn’t shared by Denise Poole. After moving to the town Beaver three years ago, she and her husband decided to sell their house and move because they didn’t want to live across the river from the cracker.
“We loved that place. That was where we were going to stay and live…So yeah I feel forced out,” Poole said.
She hadn’t paid much attention to the plant until about a year and a half ago, when she started getting flyers in the mail from Shell. “In one of them it said there’s a potential for explosions. And I was like ‘What?’”
She started going to public hearings and researching the plant. She and her husband Mike watched a documentary about pollution from the chemical industry in Louisiana.
“It was like an ‘aha’ moment where I just said to Mike ‘Look you have to read this stuff and see what you think, but I think we need to move.’”
As for Brkich, the freelance writer, he’s not leaving, at least not yet.
He says he hopes that Shell keeps its word that it won’t pollute his hometown, but if it does, he said, he may leave too.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” he said. “This is where my family is. This is my home. I’m going to stick it out and see what happens.”