Prove your humanity

Captain Evan Clark of Three Rivers Waterkeeper started trawling the shores of the Ohio River in Beaver County in September 2022 to monitor Shell’s newly opened ethane cracker for water pollution. He began finding plastic pellets called nurdles, similar to what the plant was supposed to produce. But the pellets weren’t the same size or shape as what Shell’s plant would make. 

“We started seeing these plastics that we couldn’t attribute to Shell,” Clark said. 

Three Rivers Waterkeeper and other organizations traced the nurdles to a separate plastic plant nearby — BVPV Styrenics LLC — owned by the Texas-based polystyrene maker Styropek. 

On Tuesday, Waterkeeper and PennEnvironment announced they were filing a 60-day notice of intent to sue Styropek for water quality violations in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania. 

Clark said he found an outfall from where the pellets seemed to be emanating: a wastewater pipe that empties into Raccoon Creek, a tributary to the Ohio River. He said James Cato from Mountain Watershed Association also led the nurdle patrol. 

“Every time I go to the outfall where I see them coming from, most commonly I see hundreds, if not thousands of fish swimming around in that outfall, potentially ingesting these nurdles,” Clark said. 

Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said the groups have continued to find nurdles near the plant nearly a year after they reported the alleged violations to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. 

“We were finding the nurdles that Styropek produces, and we’re finding them in high concentrations in the sediment as well as the vegetation and in the water just outside their outfall,” VanTassel said. 

VanTassel said wildlife can ingest these pellets, or they can break down into smaller microplastics and end up in drinking water. What’s more, they adsorb persistent toxins in the environment, many of which are carcinogens. “So these become these little hotbeds of toxicity,” she said.

After the groups notified the DEP, the agency conducted inspections in December 2022 and January 2023 and issued a notice of violation, noting nurdles were visible “in the soil at the stormwater outfalls” for the facility and “on the bank and in the creek.” 

Under the Clean Water Act, the plant will have 60 days to come into compliance or face a lawsuit from the groups. 

The plant was formerly owned by Nova Chemicals but was sold to Styropek in 2020. 

Lauren Camarda, a spokesperson for the DEP, said in an email the agency “takes violations of the law seriously and will always work to ensure clean air and pure water for Pennsylvanians. DEP does not comment on ongoing enforcement cases, nor does it comment on matters in litigation.”

Gina Hogue with BVPV Styrenics said in an email that many of the allegations “are inconsistent with our operations, our products, and our testing and permit compliance. We are in the process of evaluating those allegations.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to add James Cato’s name and affiliation. 

Surveying the Ohio River for plastic nurdles, as Shell readies to open cracker