Thursday was the 100th day of operation of Shell’s Beaver County plant since it came online in November 2022. Located in Potter about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, Shell Polymers Monaca is the largest plastics production facility in the Northeast U.S. and Shell’s largest petrochemical facility outside of the Gulf Coast, according to Earthworks, an environmental protection advocacy organization.
Earthworks, along with other environmental groups such as the Shell Accountability Campaign Coalition, Clean Air Council, Moms Clean Air Force, Three Rivers Waterkeeper and Breathe Project, gave Shell Polymers Monaca numerous failing grades for its first 100 days during a webinar Thursday night.
Since the plastic plant began operation on Nov. 15, the plant has exceeded annual emissions allowances, undergone multiple emergency flaring episodes, submitted at least seven malfunction reports and received three notices of violation from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Anaïs Peterson, of Earthworks and Eyes on Shell, a group of residents monitoring the impacts of the cracker plant, noted that Shell often doesn’t file malfunction reports until weeks or months after an incident. Peterson also criticized the company’s lack of transparency with local communities.
“It feels like every day there’s like something to be worried about at this plant, and that’s unacceptable for the first 100 days,” Peterson said.
In a Nov. 28 incident, the company did not notify residents of flaring, a process designed to burn off excess hydrocarbons into the sky during unexpected equipment complications, until late at night.
“They wait until 10 p.m. at night when people have put their kids to bed and people are not necessarily waiting on Facebook for a multinational corporation to be making a big announcement,” Peterson said. “Shell posts at 10 p.m. that there was an issue at the plant but at this point, community members have already started to report an orange glow, they’ve already started to reach out, there’s already starting to be chatter about what’s going on, and Shell had no answers until again 10 o’clock.”
Peterson said an orange glow was reported seen up to 15 miles away from the plant, calling the event “really jarring.”
On Dec. 14, the state DEP handed Shell its second notice of violation just shy of a month of operation. Shell exceeded its 12-month rolling volatile organic compounds (VOC) emission limits for the month of October. Shell received a third notice of violation in its first 100 days in February of this year for exceeding VOC emission limits in November and December and exceeding nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission limits in December 2022.
VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, can cause difficulty breathing and nausea, can cause cancer and can damage the central nervous system and other organs, according to the American Lung Association.
More malfunctions that resulted in elevated CO emissions occurred in December due to low temperatures, according to Shell. Yet, Peterson said, that comes with the territory.
“It was definitely chilly, but Shell knew coming in that they were building in Pennsylvania,” Peterson said. “This malfunction on the 24th actually resulted in a pause of operations that lasted about two weeks while critical repairs were made on the equipment, so it just again shows this kind of sloppy, not really thinking about the full context of where they’re building coming into Pennsylvania.”
The facility includes an ethylene cracker that uses ethane to produce polyethylene. According to Shell, the plant will produce about 1.6 million tons of polyethylene pellets. These pellets are used in everyday plastic products such as food packaging, tubing, sports equipment, toys, drums, shampoo bottles and garden furniture.
Communication and transparency along with ensuring the community is prepared for emergencies are two areas the webinar hosts graded Shell with a D.
Rachel Meyer of Mom’s Clean Air Force, an organization committed to protecting children’s health from the impacts of climate change and pollution, explained that the report card is based on asks that one would expect of a good neighbor, since Shell has stated that they would like to be a good neighbor.
“People don’t know if they have an adequate emergency response plan, and that’s causing anxiety, so if Shell would directly share some information about their plans that would help,” Meyer said.
Meyer warned of PM 2.5 (particulate matter) from the plant, which she said could cause respiratory cardiovascular disease and systemic inflammation leading to other illnesses.
Shell saw F’s in the following areas: use best available monitoring technology, respect our shared night sky, address plastic crisis and support climate change.
Ana Hoffman with the Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab said Shell fails to use the best available monitoring technology.
“They got an unsatisfactory [mark] in advanced VOC monitors and other equipment,” Hoffman said. “Shell has only said that they are using the leak detection and repair program. We know that their continuous air-monitoring system is going to come online on the fence lines, but it’s still very very important that there’s monitoring owned and operated by community members surrounding Shells because this fence-line monitoring system is not going to catch everything.”
Andie Grey, an Eyes on Shell member, explained that Shell has clearly demonstrated the company does not prioritize climate action, as Shell projects continue to rely on fossil fuels.
“They are working with United States Steel and Equinor to waste more taxpayer money on false solutions such as blue hydrogen and carbon capture, and I just want to highlight the wasting of the taxpayer money,” Grey said. “They’ve already received $1.6 billion for this plant here. … We know how Shell operates that it is so so detrimental for so many communities, especially low-income areas and BIPOC communities.”
Shell did not return multiple requests for comment.
On Feb. 13, a Beaver County Local Emergency Planning Committee meeting was held.
Grey said representatives from Shell were unable to answer when they would be hosting the next community meeting.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of information gleaned from the discussion, including the fact that we don’t know when the new hotline number will be available,” Grey said.
Within the first 100 days, the Environmental Integrity Project and Clean Air Council filed two different notices of intent to sue for repeated violations of air pollution limits. Grey emphasized the significance of the actions because “we want the plant to understand that there is going to be a response from the groups that are involved and that groups are watching, and these repeated malfunctions and violations are not going to be met with that silence.”
Additionally, on Feb. 17, Eyes on Shell, Clean Air Council and Environmental Integrity Project sent a letter to the Pennsylvania DEP urging it to temporarily halt operations at the Shell plant for ongoing and illegal air pollution violations.
During the Thursday webinar, attendees were allocated time and resources to call Shell to demand a community meeting and email the state Department of Health to halt the operation of Shell Polymers Monaca.
“Just because the plant is online doesn’t mean we’re gonna give up on Beaver County, doesn’t mean we’re gonna give up on southwestern Pennsylvania,” Peterson said. “We all deserve a safe place to live. We all deserve clean air and water, and we deserve to know that we’re safe in our homes, so we’re gonna keep holding people accountable. These are the first 100 days. We’re looking forward to holding them accountable for the next 100.”
Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her email@example.com.