Inside Pennsylvania’s Monitoring of the Shell Petrochemical Complex

This article was originally published by PublicSource, a nonprofit newsroom serving the Pittsburgh region. Sign up for its free weekly newsletters here.

From the beginning, Shell’s flagship Appalachian petrochemical complex was delayed and its startup mired in malfunction. At 8 a.m. on Sept. 6, just 12 hours and 15 minutes after Shell first introduced ethane to the high-pressure furnaces that begin to “crack” the gas into plastic, brown gases vented from the flares that function as the facility’s primary pollution controls, violating the corporation’s permits. Since then, a litany of malfunctions have cast a shadow on the facility, leaking hundreds of tons of hazardous chemical compounds into the surrounding Ohio River Valley.

The plastics plant began operating last autumn along the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County, buoyed by the largest taxpayer subsidy in Pennsylvania history. The $6 billion, 386-acre facility reached full capacity and produced its first polyethylene pellet on Nov. 21.

By mid-May, Shell had reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] at least 31 additional malfunctions that caused flaring, excess emissions or spills at the facility. The DEP issued 15 notices of violation to Shell before a May 24 consent order and agreement levied a $10 million penalty against the corporation.

The Shell petrochemical complex photographed from across the Ohio River in Vanport on Oct. 31, 2022. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

PublicSource reviewed more than 500 emails between Shell and the DEP as well as internal agency communications and public records. The agency withheld 1,426 records, indicating that they were exempt from disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law because they involved attorney work products or communications between the DEP and its lawyers, discussed confidential settlement discussions or internal deliberations, or included information from complainants.

Here’s a look inside nine months of DEP monitoring of Shell during which the company repeatedly violated state law and exceeded emissions limits for an array of hazardous chemicals and pollutants.

The documents suggest a pattern of inconsistent DEP responsiveness in critical situations and indicate that the state agency relied on Shell to assess the extent of its own mishaps and the validity of some citizen complaints. 

In response to PublicSource’s request for an interview, the DEP sent a written statement indicating that its inspectors have been “onsite and in the community frequently since the facility began operating, often multiple times per week.”  The agency said it has conducted more than 150 inspections at the facility, and emphasized that it “conducts random unannounced inspections more frequently at this facility than DEP and EPA guidance recommends.” 

Shell representatives did not respond to requests for comment as of publication.

September 5: A Troubled Beginning

From when ethane was first introduced on Sept. 5 and through Oct. 7, numerous issues plagued the plant. Loose bolts and incorrect calibrations, “unsteady amounts” of gases, a failed mechanical seal and new equipment “plugged with debris” caused over 350 tons of excess volatile organic compound [VOC] emissions at the complex, including benzene and toluene, malfunction reports show.

The DEP conducted 55 routine inspections at the facility between September 2022 and May 24. Reports show a repeated procedure: Park near the facility. Watch for visible emissions. Smell for smells that shouldn’t be there. 

Inspection reports show that DEP inspectors did not use FLIR imaging cameras (which can show otherwise-invisible emissions) until June 22, nor did they use any other technical or sampling equipment to monitor the facility during routine inspections. 

Since September 2022, the DEP’s routine inspections have been completed by a single inspector (except for three that were completed by an environmental trainee).

September 26: Malfunction Report Doesn’t Materialize

At 1:42pm, Shell Environmental Manager Kim Kaal left a voicemail for a DEP official: “I’m calling to report visible emissions,” she said, noting that the plant had exceeded the reporting limit of five minutes of visible emissions in a two-hour period. “We will prepare and submit a malfunction report.” 

The records reviewed by PublicSource do not show any formal malfunction report by Shell for that date, nor a DEP notice of violation for the incident. 

Nov. 7, 2022, at 1:05 a.m. (BreatheCam)

November 7: ‘Too Long a List’ of Malfunctions

On Oct. 7, Shell’s Kaal left a voicemail for a DEP official to notify the agency that they would be shutting down the ethane cracking unit for repairs due to “performance issues” and several malfunctions caused by a clogged strainer, according to the report.

The cracking unit came back online 10 days later on Oct. 17. On Nov. 7, Shell Environmental Engineer Alan Binder left a message for the DEP’s environmental program manager for the air quality program in its Southwest office, Mark Gorog; Binder called to report malfunctions, noting “too long a list” for a voicemail.

The startup malfunctions were to some extent expected: Shell’s Kaal circulated a draft list of would-be mishaps to the DEP for discussion on Sept. 21, most of which Shell believed would result in elevated flaring emissions. (Flaring, which burns off excess emissions to relieve pressure, functions as the primary pollution control and safety device for the plant.) A Jan. 30 emission exceedance report by Shell maintained that excess emissions during startup “are not atypical, and are extremely difficult to avoid when starting up a brand-new facility.” 

By October, Shell had emitted over 660 tons of VOCs and would violate its 12-month rolling emissions limit each month through April. The company also exceeded its limits for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides [NOx] and hazardous air pollutants. 

At the beginning of 2023, Shell began to supply VOC emissions data using a new method that the DEP rejected, noting that, “Shell has not demonstrated that these results are appropriate.” 

Dec. 24, 2022, at 7:12 a.m. (BreatheCam)

December 24: No Answer on the Emergency Line

On Christmas Eve at 7:34 a.m., Shell’s Kaal emailed the DEP to report a malfunction and flaring at the facility: “I wanted you to know I made three calls, the first to the 24-hour after hours emergency number and it said ‘cannot connect your call,’ then I tried the complaints line and it said ‘please try again later.’” She added: “We are flaring in both the ground flares as well as the elevated flare today 12/24/22 beginning around 6:30 a.m.” 

A malfunction report submitted to the agency on Feb. 6 showed that the event resulted in excess emissions of 12.17 tons of VOCs and 9.09 tons of NOx. Shell attributed the malfunction to equipment failure due to extreme cold.

The DEP did not issue a notice of violation for the incident. 

Feb. 13, 2023, at 4:04 p.m. (BreatheCam)

February 13: DEP Emergency Response 

At 3:50 p.m., Shell’s Binder (a former DEP employee) called the agency multiple times, leaving voicemails for three DEP officials: “I’m trying to get a hold of somebody to let you know that we’re having an elevated flaring event at the site due to an upset in the ECU ethylene unit,” Binder said in a voicemail to DEP’s Gorog. He added: “We expect some complaints.”

“We are smoking currently. I’m watching it from my office,” Binder said in a message to another DEP official. “It’s not an imminent threat to my knowledge.”

After receiving several complaints, the department dispatched DEP air quality specialist Scott Beaudway to the facility in what would be the only emergency response by the agency to date, per the records. 

In a Feb. 13 email to other DEP officials, Gorog wrote: “They [Shell] do not believe there is any danger to the public as the elevated flare is designed to handle the full capacity.”

When Beaudway arrived, he observed visible emissions at two of the three flares and took photographs, but did not smell any malodors, according to his report. Beaudway spoke with two Shell representatives who described the incident to him and also told him that one of the flares “broke its glycol seal, venting a mixture of water and glycol onto Shell Chemical’s property.” Ethylene glycol is toxic, and exposure can cause damage to the nervous system, skin, kidneys, and respiratory system.

Beaudway wrote: “[Shell] did survey the area and did not observe any of the glycol/water mixture on the public road or adjacent river. Shell will resume their investigation in the morning when it’s light.”

DEP officials met with Shell the following week to discuss the event, emails show.

On March 30, Shell environmental engineer Jason Shultz sent an email to a DEP official detailing the company’s investigation of the incident, noting that an “estimated 7,400 gallons of ethylene glycol” had been released, and a portion had made it to the ground. Shell observed a “droplet pattern” on the site’s roadways, which the company swept. 

The incident caused excess emissions of 6.41 tons of VOCs and 4.12 tons of NOx.

March 3, 2023, at 5:11 p.m. (BreatheCam)

March 3: Mystery ‘Booms,’ no Info From Shell

A DEP official emailed Shell’s Kaal, noting the agency had received complaints of “really bad” air quality and “several loud booms from the plant.” The official asked Kaal to “address if the concern of loud booms [came] from the plant.” Kaal responded: “I am certainly unaware of anything that would result in a ‘boom’ from the plant. We will look into this complaint and get back to you, thank you.”

An hour and a half later, Kaal replied again: “There is no indication of bad air quality. There also has not been anything definitive which we believe may have caused noise. We are continuing to look into this.” 

The next DEP inspection occurred six days later on March 9, and records do not indicate any other follow-up by the agency.

March 14, 2023, at 10:52 p.m. (BreatheCam)

March 15: A Flaring Hotspot 

On the morning of March 15, a DEP official emailed Shell’s Kaal to ask if the company had flared the night before. “I also have a report of ‘spraying down the tower with water and a hose,’” the official wrote. Kaal responded that yes, they had flared, but she was “unaware of any water spraying.” 

Asked by DEP to look into the spraying, Kaal responded that it was likely to mitigate a “refractory hot spot” on one of the ground flares, a “temporary preventative measure” until the company could take the flare out of service for inspection and repair.

A video posted to Reddit by user bluegrassblowsglass shows hoses in use to cool a flare at the Shell Petrochemical Complex in Beaver County on March 14, 2023. (Source: Reddit)

In an email to fellow officials on March 16 concerning the flaring and the agency’s response, DEP Director of Communications Neil Shader wrote: “For an immediate statement can we say that Shell has alerted us to the flaring incident and that we are reviewing the information they’ve submitted to us?

“Also, can we ask Shell very nicely to stop doing this? (this one probably isn’t feasible I know).”

On March 25, Shell shut down production to repair damage at the facility. The corporation initiated an array of temporary repairs, which included replacing damaged steel and installing heat-resistant materials to fix the hotspot. VOC emissions from the facility continued throughout the shutdown, Shell’s monitoring data shows.

April 12, 2023, at 6:49 p.m. (BreatheCam)

April 12: ‘Heavy fluids’ in the Wastewater, Benzene in the Air

On Jan. 25, Shell’s Binder left a voicemail for a DEP official to report an off-site odor noticed by the company’s emergency response team. The odor continued until Feb. 16, according to Shell reports, but DEP routine inspections on Jan. 26 and 30, and on Feb. 2, 8 and 9 followed the typical procedure and did not detect malodors.

On March 2, Shell sent DEP pictures of a “sheen” on the surface of its biotreater, and on March 7, Kaal submitted a request for permission to install temporary equipment to better control the flow of hydrocarbons into the wastewater treatment plant. 

“Please expedite the review if at all possible, we plan to install the unit as soon as available to improve performance of our waste water treatment system,” Kaal wrote.

On April 3, Kaal emailed DEP again to check on the status of the request, which wouldn’t be approved by the agency until April 10, over a month later.

A photo sent by Shell to the DEP on March 2 shows a “sheen” on the surface of a biotreater, which the company said was caused by hydrocarbons accidentally flowing into the facility’s wastewater treatment plant. (Shell)

On April 12, Binder left a voicemail for a DEP official to report another “off-site odor event,” which began on the prior afternoon. “We think this is emanating from our wastewater treatment plant system,” he said, and attributed the odor to an “accidental bypass” of “heavy fluids” to the treatment plant. 

Later on April 12, Kaal sent photos to the DEP of the treatment plant and included an image of some foam that had escaped to the Ohio River. “At any distance from the outfall this would not be observable whatsoever,” she concluded. 

A photo sent by Shell to the DEP on April 12 shows foam that had leaked from the facility and into the Ohio River amid a string of issues at the complex’s wastewater treatment plant. Shell cleaned the spill “immediately.” (Shell)

An on-site DEP inspection at noon that day — in response to an odor complaint and a report of 5,000 gallons of benzene discharged into the wastewater treatment plant [WWTP] — found intermittent odors while driving near the facility, but the DEP inspector could not gain access “due to the air atmosphere in the area. The facility was only allowing personnel who were respirator certified to access the WWTP,” the inspector noted in his report. 

About an hour later, a DEP routine inspection did not observe any malodors, according to reports. A Shell malfunction report noted that the malodors began April 11 and ended April 20, but five routine DEP inspection reports between those dates did not include mention of malodors. 

Shell’s fenceline monitoring system recorded average benzene readings that reached up to 12 times the EPA action limit for the known carcinogen for a two-week period ending April 13. 

The facility leaked 219 pounds of benzene in a 24-hour period, more than 21 times the reportable quantity governed by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act [CERCLA], per Shell’s malfunction report.

The company called the release “sudden and unplanned”.

On April 19, Kaal told a DEP official that the temporary hydrocarbon controls were being installed, and the odor event concluded the following day.

May 25, 2023, at 5:22 a.m. (BreatheCam)

May 24: Consent order and agreement

On May 24, 2023, Gov. Josh Shapiro announced a consent order and agreement between the state and Shell. Emails show the DEP had met with Shell since early January to discuss terms for the agreement, which acts as a blanket enforcement action for the numerous violations the corporation accumulated during its startup.

“Environmental protection is not only about avoiding violations, but it’s also about accountability through strong enforcement and mitigation if violations do occur,” said DEP Secretary Rich Negrin in a statement to PublicSource. Adding: “As a trustee of the environment, DEP is prioritizing accountability.” 

The agreement sets more stringent monitoring and reporting requirements for the facility and levies a $10 million penalty against the corporation. Shell profits last year were $39.9 billion.

Shell ended its shutdown that began March 25 and restarted production on May 24, the same day the consent order was announced.

July 11 at 3:34 a.m. (BreatheCam)

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@publicsource.org and on X, formerly known as Twitter, and Instagram @quinnglabicki.

This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia.

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