Q&A: What to Do About Pollution From a Vast New Shell Plastics Plant in Pennsylvania

From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview by Producer Paloma Beltran with Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front.

PALOMA BELTRAN: Even before it came online last year, the huge plastics plant Shell built on the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, had problems with pollution. The plant is an “ethane cracker” that uses fracked gas to produce the common plastic called polyethylene, and it’s violated air quality rules and sent strange smells into the surrounding community. 

And although it has brought new jobs, a recent report from the nonprofit Ohio River Valley Institute suggests it hasn’t ushered in the economic boom that some anticipated. 

In May, Pennsylvania’s governor announced that Shell will pay a $10 million fine for its air quality violations. But that fine pales in comparison to the roughly $100 million a day that Shell made in profits in the first quarter of 2023. And the plant received a $1.65 billion tax credit over 25 years, the largest in Pennsylvania history. 

Reid Frazier covers energy for The Allegheny Front, and he’s here to tell us more. Welcome back to Living on Earth, Reid.

FRAZIER: Good to be here.

BELTRAN: So, this shell plant has been in the works for a long time. Can you describe it for us? How big is it, and how much plastic does it produce?

FRAZIER: It’s basically like a small city that they built to make plastic, there on the banks of Ohio. At the top capacity, it will be able to make over three billion pounds of plastic every year. The greenhouse gas emissions from this facility are estimated to be the equivalent of 400,000 cars on the road. So, it’s a pretty big greenhouse gas emitter, it’ll probably be, you know, one of the top few facilities in the state in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

BELTRAN: Wow. And in May, you reported that Shell agreed to pay a $10 million fine after emissions from the plant violated state air quality rules. What were the violations, and what will the money be used for?

FRAZIER: Right, so the violations were for exceeding their state permit-allowed air pollution, essentially. They were allowed to pollute about 500 tons a year of volatile organic compounds. They basically exceeded that in September of 2022, when they had a lot of flaring, there were sort of equipment malfunctions, and when those malfunctions take place, they basically flare the gas as a way to get rid of it. 

And so that the gas doesn’t accumulate and, you know, cause an explosion. But when you do that, I mean, you get rid of a lot of the pollution, but not all of it. So, in one month, they essentially hit their 12-month quota, even before the plant had started. And they’ve exceeded similar limits for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, in subsequent months.

And they’ve had other problems with air pollution. 

There was a release that caused benzene and volatile organic compounds to spike a couple months ago, workers reported headaches and irritation in their eyes, according to the company. There have just been a lot of problems. So, the state rolled all of these violations together into a $10 million fine. About half of the money goes to the state and half goes to the local area municipalities and such, you know, presumably to be used in a sort of environmentally friendly or civic-minded way, but we don’t actually know what the money is going to be used for.

BELTRAN: Reid, you’ve been covering this project for a long time, and you’ve spoken to lots of people in Beaver County. How have community members responded to the plant?

FRAZIER: Well, obviously, a lot of people are upset that there is this ongoing pollution problem. I think, you know, most people, everyone hopes that the company will clean its act up. There is a sort of acknowledgement that when you open up a big plant like this, there’s bound to be problems as you sort of start bringing equipment online. That having been said, I think people were surprised by how much pollution has come from this plant. Even people who were big supporters of Shell coming to Beaver County. I talked to Jack Manning, who’s a Beaver County commissioner, so it’s like the local governing board. He actually used to work in the petrochemical industry in Beaver County. He’s basically said, you know, he’s still going to be supporting Shell, but they simply have to clean their act up. And here are his words.

MANNING: Well, I’ve also 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.

FRAZIER: Other people are, you know, more upset, parents who’ve taken their kids to school on days when there were like high benzene levels, and were understandably freaked out by the smell of, like, gasoline in their backyard. That’s what one person told me. Somebody else reported that it smelled like burning plastic. And I think more than anything, it’s sort of like, “Wait, is this how it’s going to be for like, the rest of my life, if I stay here?,” is sort of the thought that a lot of people are having. But if you live like five miles away, you know, you probably don’t experience this. And, you know, they’re glad to see that there’s a plant with 600 workers there, and maybe they have friends or relatives who are working there or worked to build it and, you know, made a lot of money in construction. During the five or six years when it was under construction, there were something like 6,000 to 8,000 people working on it. So, it’s a mixed bag. I think the closer you are to the plant, the more you’re worried about it.

BELTRAN: Of course, I mean, who wants to be smelling chemicals every day in their? Some fossil fuel companies are looking to increase their foothold in the plastics industry as the world moves towards cleaner sources of energy. Is that pivot happening at all in Beaver County, or in Pennsylvania more generally?

FRAZIER: That remains to be seen. I mean, I think the Shell plant itself is a kind of example of that pivot that you just described, where oil and gas companies are trying to figure out what they’re going to do in the next few decades, if people largely give up gas-driven cars and such. And petrochemicals are, you know, they’re a growing business still. There were plans for more of these to be built in the greater Ohio Valley region. There was one project that was on the docket in eastern Ohio. To date, it hasn’t been built, it hasn’t been approved. We’ll see if that changes in the next few years. But it’s unclear. You know, five or six years ago, there was thought that there would be like five or six of these plants at some point, and now we’re not sure if that’s actually going to happen in this region.

BELTRAN: In some ways, the world seems to be moving away from plastics. U.N. negotiators recently held talks over a potential treaty to address plastic pollution. But this plant is built to produce 3.5 billion pounds of polyethylene per year. What might that mean for pollution in Beaver County and elsewhere?

FRAZIER: We don’t know where this plastic is going to end up. It could end up overseas, actually. It could end up in North America, as, you know, plastic bottles or medical equipment or parts that go into vehicles, even electric vehicles. But we don’t know, that kind of information is not something that Shell is required to tell local regulators and local communities. 

But we do know that it’s likely that this plastic will be sent on railcars around the country. They have a massive rail yard with hopper cars, where they can just dump the nurdles, which are the little plastic beads. That’s the form that they produce. And so it seems pretty certain that there will be some rail activity related to these nurdles, and that they’ll basically go elsewhere.

BELTRAN: And we should mention that this plant is located barely a half hour’s drive from East Palestine, Ohio, where a freight train derailed in February and caused a toxic chemical spill. Has this shaped the way Beaver County residents are thinking about this ethane cracker?

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FRAZIER: Definitely. The Shell plant, every few weeks, would would flare up, or there would be gases, or they would have an exceedance of their pollution limits. And at the same time, you have this national calamity going on about 15 miles away. And the communities around the plant are also downwind of that East Palestine fallout. So, it’s kind of hard to escape, if you’re living there, all of this pollution.

BELTRAN: Do regulators or environmental groups have plans to address the plant’s pollution moving forward?

FRAZIER: You know, I think the state has set up some guideposts for Shell. You know, they have to submit plans for how they’re going to do certain things at the plant to prevent continued releases of these pollutants. But there’s no guarantee that this kind of thing won’t keep happening, and that Shell won’t keep paying fines when it does. There’s a lawsuit that has been launched from environmental groups to kind of get the plant to stop polluting, and we’ll see where that goes. These groups can push on the regulator, and the regulator can push on the company, but it’s really up to the company to perform, get its processes in line with environmental regulations. And I think the best people can do now is hope that that happens.

BELTRAN: Reid Frazier is a reporter at The Allegheny Front. Thank you so much for joining us.

FRAZIER: Thanks for having me.

BELTRAN: Shell has not responded directly to our request for comment but told Reid Frazier that it fixed the issues that created the pollution problems at its ethane cracker plant in Pennsylvania.

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