Plant startup faces environmental oversight

MONACA, Pa. — Environmental groups mobilized to monitor air and water quality in Beaver County in the weeks leading up to Royal Dutch Shell’s petrochemical cracker plant’s Nov. 15 opening.

Several groups held a joint video conference that attracted more than 200 people who listened to how various organizations had begun testing air and water samples to set a baseline before the plant along the Ohio River near Monaca officially opened.

While most people knew little about Marcellus Shale when the natural gas drilling boom began in western Pennsylvania in the late 2000s, Environmental Health Project Executive Director Alison Steele said groups like hers were working to educate the public on what to expect from the cracker plant.

At the time, she said various environmental groups had positioned numerous air- and water-monitoring stations around Beaver County, while Shell is required to monitor and share results from four sites at the plant and 20 around the property. The Peters Township-based group also had produced baseline testing results from a “monitoring network” to see if there are changes to the environment when the plant is operating. Steele said the group was pushing for accountability and trying to get comprehensive health policies from state regulators so residents aren’t the ones “fighting the fight.”

Steele also walked 225 participants on a recent videoconference through a brief history of the plant in which Pennsylvania’s state government offered a $1.6 billion tax incentive to Shell to build the plant here in exchange for 600 ongoing jobs. Construction on the plant began in November 2017 on the 340-acre property in Potter Township that was formerly a zinc smelter plant.

“The question on everyone’s mind is, ‘Why here? Why now?'” she said.


As renewable energy sources are becoming more affordable, the natural gas industry has moved to find other production uses for its product. The cracker plant will separate ethane from natural gas to produce ethylene that allows for the creation of plastic products commonly used by consumers.

Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said even before the plant’s startup began this month, her group had begun seeing evidence of some production, as they found plastic “nurdles” in the river. Nurdles are produced at the plant and then shipped across the country for manufacturers to create various plastic products. Those little pellets can be ingested by wildlife or hold dangerous chemicals that can be released into the environment, she warned.

In recent months she said environmental groups were working on boat patrols to find nurdles and have baseline water-quality readings allowing them to know if there are problems when the plant is fully operational. She said the environmental organization will continue monitoring water quality in the Ohio River and around its watershed to make sure no harmful chemicals are being discharged that could endanger humans or wildlife.

She added environmental organizations monitoring the air and water quality don’t want that area of Beaver County to become a “sacrifice zone” for industry.

“We’re here to monitor water,” she said. “And we’re going to work hard so we don’t turn into that place. … “We’re putting pressure on DEP (Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection) to hold them accountable.”

An email sent to Royal Dutch Shell’s headquarters in the weeks leading up to the plant’s startup about the seminar’s environmental concerns was not immediately answered.


The plant located northwest of the Pittsburgh International Airport, visible from Interstate 376, looks similar to a gasoline refinery, with miles of pipes and large storage tanks. The core manufacturing and logistics area covers about 385 acres, with an overall site footprint of about 800 acres. It includes its own power generation and water treatment plants.

The plant is the first major polyethylene manufacturing complex in the northeastern United States, according to Shell.

Most ethylene production is on the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. Shell says the location gives it a competitive advantage, with more than 70 percent of the U.S. polyethylene market within 700 miles of Pittsburgh.

Annual U.S. ethane consumption has doubled in the past decade as demand for ethylene has grown. Ethane consumption recently rose above 2 million barrels per day, according to the Energy Information Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Shell’s plant in western Pennsylvania is estimated to add 96,000 barrels per day of ethane feedstock capacity, the agency said.


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