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Along the banks of the Ohio River, some residents of Pennsylvania towns like Beaver, Vanport, Brighton and Monaca are hoping a $6 billion ethane cracker plant in Potter Township will deliver positive economic benefits, including new jobs.
But others who live in the region are skeptical the plant can deliver on those promises. And some say they’re concerned about the plant’s potential to pollute the environment and harm human health.
Once it’s operational this fall, Shell’s Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex — the recipient of a $1.6 billion tax break, the largest ever for the state — will become a major player in U.S. petrochemicals, producing 1.6 million tons of polyethylene annually in the form of nurdles, tiny polyethylene pellets used to manufacture plastic goods.
Beaver County Commissioner Jack Manning expressed a “mostly positive” attitude toward Shell’s project, even though people are leaving his county because of it. Manning spoke earlier this year to Yale Environment 360 of his hope that the the petrochemicals industry might restore the region to its former glory days of Big Steel.
Mark Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, a nonprofit economic development group, last year told NBC News, “The steel from the [region’s] steel mills not only helped win World War II but built everything from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge … and everything in between.”
Indeed, some state and federal officials predict a “regional renaissance,” not only for the jobs these plants might bring, “but also for the development that could be an economic multiplier, or catalyst,” officials said, citing a potential boom for the restaurant and hotel industries, commercial transportation and manufacturing.
“It’s not that the industry by itself will rescue all the communities that need investment,” Thomas said. “But it will create enough of a fire that it can be catalytic.”
The oil industry claims gas supplies in the Ohio River region — sometimes referred to as the Appalachian petrochemical hub — could support as many as five large cracker plants like Shell’s 800-acre complex, which is set to open soon after five years of construction.
However, Eric de Place, one of the authors (with Molly Kiick) of a December 2021 study by the Ohio River Valley Institute on the economic impact of Shell’s large-scale development, said data collected by the study show large-scale development by Shell has failed to produce growth in Beaver County.
de Place told The Defender:
“The supposed revitalization of Beaver County did not happen. Instead, we have people complaining about the noises. There was even a foam release into the river. Complaints about odors. And flaring caused light to be reflected off the clouds. This industry brings with it a ton of environmental problems.”
Along with those “environmental problems” — Shell’s plant, situated 25 miles from Pittsburgh, would emit 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, wiping out the gains in carbon reduction Pittsburgh planned to achieve by 2030 — critics of the project say it also comes with risks to human health.
Indeed, some community members expressed fear that a petrochemical boom will move Beaver County one step closer to becoming another “cancer alley” — the term environmentalists and industry wonks use to describe an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which is home to 150 petrochemical plants and refineries.
Manning, who used to work in the petrochemical industry, rejected those concerns, telling WESA-FM NPR he’s confident Shell’s cracker plant is safe.
Shell’s environmental and regulatory lead, Kimberly Kaal, holds a similar view. When asked what effect the company’s cracker plant would have on the health of residents in nearby communities she said, “We don’t have an impact.”
But community-based groups disagreed.
“The harm is considerable,” Dr. Edward C. Ketyer, a retired pediatrician and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, told The Defender.
“People exposed to the emissions and pollution will get sick, because that’s what happens to people who live near petrochemical facilities like cracker plants!”
When asked about his biggest concerns now that the Shell plant is about to go online, Ketyer said he’s concerned about inversions and ground-level ozone and Shell’s insistence that the plant is non-hazardous.
“I worry about the topography of the area, where air emissions get trapped in the river valley, especially during common temperature inversions — effectively gassing the residents living in proximity and downwind from the plant,” Ketyer said.
In an interview with The Defender, Ketyer, who lives in the region, said:
“This area of the country is a really special place. The people are genuine and take pride in their communities. Even though they’ve been warned, they haven’t processed what they’ve learned.
“When this plant opens — this week or next month — they are in for a big surprise. And they are not going to be happy.”
Like ‘a Ponzi scheme for natural gas’
Ethane cracker plants like the Shell plant in Pennsylvania’s Potter Township perform the first step in the process of transforming ethane — a component of natural gas derived from fracking — into plastic products.
According to the Environmental Law Institute:
“When shale is extracted from the ground, it contains methane as well as other components, including natural gas liquids (NGLs) such as ethane. A separation unit at the drilling site divides methane from NGLs in order to yield ‘pipeline quality’ natural gas, which is mostly pure methane that can be burned as fuel.
“Meanwhile, the NGLs have other uses and are separated into ethane, propane, butane, and other components at a fractionation plant. Ethane then can be transferred from the fractionation plant to an ethane cracker, which converts ethane into ethylene, the basic building bloc of many plastics products.”
The plants, which use extreme heat to “crack” the molecular bonds in ethane to produce ethylene, “have the potential to emit large amounts of ethylene, propylene and other so-called ‘highly reactive volatile organic compounds.’ These are chemical compounds that can react quickly in sunlight to form ground-level ozone, or smog.”
According to the Environmental Health Project:
“Once operational, the Shell cracker plant has been permitted to release more than 30 tons of hazardous air pollutants, 323 tons of fine particles, and 522 tons of VOCs. These numbers make it a major contributor to pollution in our region.”
But cracking ethane into ethylene is just one phase of an energy-intensive polluting process, according to de Place, who works in the Pacific Northwest for Salish Strategies and several other organizations as an environmental consultant.
“The whole chain is dirty,” de Place said, explaining that it involves the drilling of thousands of wells, from which methane, natural gas and ethane are extracted.
“You have to drill the wells to support the petrochemical plant, but you also have to build the petrochemical plant in order to keep drilling the wells,” according to Rebecca Scott, associate professor of environmental sociology at the University of Missouri, in a Sept. 15 Sierra magazine article. “It’s like a Ponzi scheme for natural gas.”
In a 15-year period, from 2002 to 2017, 10,000 fracking wells were drilled in Pennsylvania. Almost a third are located within 1.25 miles of a residential groundwater well.
The cracker plant produces waste products and fluids, some of which are radioactive, which then have to be stored. And the plastics then have to be shipped all over the world.
Children bear brunt of health risks
Moms Clean Air Force and dozens of other local and state watchdog groups, in many cases with the backing of university-based scientists, agree that cracker plants spew large amounts of dangerous pollution into the air, including benzene, formaldehyde and toluene; volatile organic compounds (VOCs); particulate matter; nitrogen oxide; and carbon dioxide.
That means people living near cracker and fracking operations are at higher risk of cancer, neurological problems, cardiovascular disease, respiratory ailments, birth defects, asthma attacks and low birth rates, according to a 2016 report from JAMA Internal Medicine.
Moms Clean Air Force Project Manager Patrice Tomcik voiced her concerns about air pollution in her hometown of Gibsonia, near Pittsburgh, during one of the community meetings organized by Shell.
“I know firsthand about polluting industries because my community is completely surrounded by polluting sources. Upwind to the west of our home is an interstate connector and to the north is a steel plant. To my south and east is a cluster of coal-fired power plants that contribute to making Pennsylvania’s power sector the fifth dirtiest in the nation.
“To compound the air pollution problem are multiple unconventional natural gas wells in my children’s school district with the closest ones a half mile away. My youngest son had cancer, and I know his immune system is compromised.”
Tomcik cited a Yale study that found children in Pennsylvania who live near unconventional gas production (fracking) are up to 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia between the ages of 2 and 7 than those who did not live near wells.
The Yale study found children who live within a mile-and-a-quarter of a well face the highest risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Even carried out to 6 miles from a well, the study suggests children still had an elevated level of risk of getting leukemia.
“What our results really indicate is that exposure to unconventional oil and gas development may be an important risk factor for ALL, particularly for those children that are exposed in utero,” said Cassandra Clark, lead author of the study and an environmental epidemiologist at the Yale Cancer Center.
Children living within one-and-a-quarter miles of a fracking well “were twice as likely to develop ALL than others, and babies born to pregnant women who lived near these sites were nearly 3 times as likely to develop this type of cancer,” according to a study published Aug. 18, in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
“Hundreds of chemicals have been reportedly used in injection water or detected in wastewater,” according to the August study.
Keyter told The Defender that the names of the chemicals emitted into the air from one of the largest petrochemical ethane cracker plants in the world aren’t a secret, and that the Shell ethane cracker plant is no different than any of the other cracker plants in operation around the country and around the world.
“It’s no secret that people who live around these types of fossil-fueled industrial facilities are more likely to get sick than people who don’t, Keyter told The Defender.
“Children are more likely to be exposed because, well, they’re kids, and they and their mothers are more likely to suffer the health consequences as a result. These things are objectively known.“
“Children are inherently more susceptible to health damage from environmental exposures due to the fact that their bodies and organ systems are rapidly growing and developing.”
Like many scientists and doctors, Keyter spoke of the longer “shelf life” children have:
“They have more years to develop manifestations of disease after exposure(s) to toxics in the environment. We know that fossil fuel pollution — fine particulate matter, volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — is arguably the worst kind of pollution humanity has seen in terms of inflicting the greatest harm to the greatest numbers.”
Citizen groups still active, despite failure to stop Shell plant
Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, part of a collaboration of environmental community groups in the Ohio River valley, considers the collective fight against this Shell project as a loss.
But he believes the future of plastics is shaky.
“When you talk to people on the street about Shell, you are talking to people who have endured the zinc plant, major coal-fired power plants, existing chemical plants, nuclear power plants, all at their doorstep for generations,” Mehalik told the Pittsburg Independent a week ago. “There is a normalization of a deep acceptance of health consequences for employment. . . . It’s as if they forgot their history.”
Mehalik, who grew up in the Industrial River Valley, told The Defender how his six-and-a-half years working to oppose Shell’s project has resulted in lost battles, how Shell gaslights residents and how it manipulates projected profits for its plastics markets.
“They overbuilt the past 10 years,” Mehalik said, adding that when Shell first pitched the cracker plant for Beaver County, the forecast for the plastics market was double what it is now.
That “wobbly market,” Mehalik emphasized, glosses over the huge tax incentive ($1.6 billion), pushing sort of a “cognitive dissonance boosterism” that disregards the quality of life and health impacts of the plant.
The battle may have been lost with the Shell cracker, but Mehalik stressed the four “proposed” plastics plants for this area are not seeing the tax support or capital investment Shell’s cracker facility realized.
Shell’s announced startup date is the end of summer. Mehalik noted there has been increased use of ground flares at the plant’s stacks. More and more plumes and flares are consistent with a cracker plant about to begin operation.
In addition to groups like Breathe Project and Moms Clean Air Force, other organizations also remain intent on holding Shell’s feet to the fire in terms of emissions and other health hazards. Among them are the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community and the citizen watchdog group, Eyes on Shell, launched last month.
They all serve as the eyes, ears and noses on the ground, urging residents to keep health journals and report flaring incidents, foul odors and other troubling signs.
“There are still battles to be won,” Mehalik said. “Pursuing truth is worth all the energy. I’m hopeful.”