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New Pennsylvania Shell Plant Brings Pollution and Plastic. We’re Fighting Back.

Shell’s plant is spewing air pollution and blowing past permit limits in Western Pennsylvania, so we're pushing to hold it accountable, write Food & Water Watch's Mia DiFelice and Robin Lesko.
Image courtesy of Food & Water Watch.

Written by Mia DiFelice and Robin Lesko

There’s a beast on the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. It spews fire, smoke, and steam, emits foul smells, and sends toxic air pollutants into the skies. 

This beast is Shell Polymers Monaca, a plastic-producing ethane cracker plant. Shell promised it would bring new jobs and new business, but since opening in the fall of 2022, the plant has delivered as we expected: malfunctions galore, permit violations, and harrowing pollution for nearby residents.

With so much at stake, officials must hold Shell accountable. So we’ve joined allies to demand that accountability and ensure a healthy environment for our community.

The Fires in the Sky at Shell Polymers Monaca

A huge column of blazing flame is never a good sign. Shell would have us believe that it’s a routine occurrence to keep operations safe. But in reality, it’s often more like a distress signal

Shell Polymers is only allowed to flare for five minutes every two hours, but it’s been flaring way too much for comfort. For instance, in February, an equipment malfunction led the plant to send a huge bolt of fire into the air for hours on end.

Flaring burns off chemicals directly into the air, with black smoke signaling a malfunction — as well as dangerous pollution. It releases particulate matter, cancer-causing benzene, and other toxic pollutants.

The glowing towers of Shell Polymers Monaca and a cloud of orange smoke and fire light up a pitch-black night.
Shell Polymers Monaca flares one night in September 2022. PHOTO CC-BY © MARK DIXON / FLICKR.COM

Shell Expels Dangerous Air Pollution Into Our Already-Burdened Community

Even before Shell Polymers Monaca came online, Beaver County residents struggled with bad air quality. The County already had an F grade for ozone from the American Lung Association. 

Additionally, residents face a higher risk for cancers, heart disease, and respiratory disease — which can all be caused or worsened by the pollution from the Shell plant.

The plant is permitted to be the second-biggest emitter of ozone-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in Pennsylvania. But while Shell is capped at 516.2 tons of VOC pollution for any 12-month period, it emitted 510.89 tons in September 2022 alone — before it even started operations. With every following month, it flew by its 12-month permit limits.

That’s in part because of equipment malfunctions that began a mere 12 hours after the plant began operations. From September 5 to October 7 alone, these malfunctions led to 350 tons of excess VOC pollution.

These VOCs are no joke. They cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea. Long-term, they can damage the liver, kidney, and nervous systems, worsen asthma, and cause cancer.

What’s more, from November to May, the plant racked up over a dozen air permit violations and blasted through its limits for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other hazardous air pollutants. The plant also emits air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and benzene during routine operations. 

In April, Shell’s fenceline monitoring system clocked sickening levels of benzene, due in part to the 219 pounds of benzene it leaked in a single day. That’s more than 21 times the amount that triggers reporting requirements under our country’s major toxic pollution law.

The Shell Plant Contributes to Our Plastic Pollution and Climate Crises

Shell Polymers has huge consequences not just for the local community, but for the planet and the climate. In a time of crisis-level plastic pollution, these plants turn ethane (derived from natural gas) into ethylene, a key ingredient in many plastics. 

The Beaver plant will produce up to 3.5 billion tons of plastic pellets a year, much of them destined to become single-use plastics. And these single-use plastics are the major contributors to the plastic pollution crisis

Plants like these are linchpins in our linked plastic and climate crises. They drive more drilling and fracking to supply ethane. One researcher estimates that a plant the size of Shell’s would need 1,000 wells to supply it. The plant itself is expected to have the same annual greenhouse gas emissions as 430,000 extra cars on the road.

This Plant Was Built on False Promises

The Shell plant was originally planned as part of a network of facilities. Politicians on both sides of the aisle lauded it as the start of an industrial renaissance. 

In its excitement, the PA state legislature bestowed a hefty $1.7 billion tax credit on the facility, the largest of its kind in state history. Shell touted an expected billions of dollars in economic impact for the state. It promised the plant would create jobs, generate income taxes, and attract more business.

But these turned out to be empty promises. In the more than 10 years since the plant was announced, Beaver County has seen none of the promised windfall

According to the Ohio River Valley Institute, the County has lost population, business, and GDP, even as the rest of the state and country grew. It also fell behind the state and nation in job growth and in reducing poverty. 

Instead of bringing jobs in booming green energy and manufacturing, lawmakers chose Shell’s pollution and profits.

We Stand at the Start — but Far From the End — of Accountability for Shell

In May 2023, Shell finally agreed to pay $10 million for its permit violations. Of that, $5 million will fund environmental projects in Beaver County. And this historic Environmental Mitigation Community Fund is one of the largest in state history. 

Food & Water Watch’s leadership in this fight and our allies’ tireless watchdogging made sure that Shell’s actions wouldn’t slip by unnoticed.  

EOS Event and Commissioners Meeting Previews 17 websize - Bucks County Beacon - New Pennsylvania Shell Plant Brings Pollution and Plastic. We’re Fighting Back.
Community members gather for a rally before a June 8 County Commissioner meeting. Photo by Rustbelt Photography.

But this isn’t the end. In its agreement with DEP, Shell said it already expects to violate its 12-month emissions limits into the fall. Nevertheless, the plant will continue to operate. The $10 million penalty is the bare minimum, as Shell continues to pollute this region and sacrifice its neighbors’ health for profit. 

Moreover, it’s become increasingly clear that local governments aren’t equipped to handle the hazards of big polluters like Shell. Recently, County officials have pulled out of an important community meeting to address emergency response. 

We deserve a healthy environment and freedom from the fear of deadly pollution. We deserve leaders who aren’t so afraid of Shell that they turn their backs on our communities. 

This article was originally published by Food & Water Watch and is republished here with permission.

Mia DiFelice is a Digital CopywriterDigital Copywriter at Food & Water Watch. Robin Lesko is a senior organizer with Food & Water Watch.

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Special to The Bucks County Beacon

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