By Dana Drugmand
On the afternoon of February 13, just 10 days after a Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a Shell petrochemical plant located roughly 20 miles away in Pennsylvania began spewing black smoke into the air – an event that lasted several hours and sparked questions and concerns in the community.
The fiery orange flare that raised alarm among local residents and watchdog groups was one of multiple such events that have occurred at the facility since it became full operational in November, underscoring doubts about the plant’s safety and compliance with air quality rules.
About an hour after the Feb. 13 flaring started, Shell posted an update on Facebook explaining that such flares come in response to equipment malfunctions, adding that flaring was “expected to continue through the evening as equipment is returned back to normal operation.”
Shell has yet to submit an official malfunction report for the February incident, which appears to be a violation of legal prohibitions on visible emissions from the plant’s flares and incinerators.
“Shell’s illegal pollution, continued flaring events, and atrocious disregard for environmental regulations in just its first 100 days of operations pose an unacceptable risk to workers and communities living near the petrochemical complex,” Anais Peterson, petrochemical campaigner at the community advocacy group Earthworks, said in a statement.
Shell’s 386-acre facility, located on the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near the town of Monaca, is the largest plastics production plant in the Northeast and Shell’s largest petrochemical facility outside of the Gulf Coast. The plant uses a process called “cracking” to convert the natural gas liquid ethane into the petrochemical ethylene, a building block for fossil fuel-derived plastic production.
Since announcing the commencement of operations in November, the Shell Polymers Monaca facility has experienced repeated malfunctions and emergency flaring episodes and has continually violated the conditions of its state-issued air permit. In its first 100 days the plant has submitted at least seven malfunction reports to state regulators and has received three notices of violation from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
As a result of the multiple malfunctions and flaring events, the plant is emitting excess carbon pollution and other pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Exposure to VOCs and NOx can cause difficulty breathing and nausea, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and other health problems. The two pollutants can react in the presence of sunlight to create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.
On the day the facility opened there was a malfunction resulting in estimated excess emissions that included 721 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and approximately 2 tons of VOCs, according to the company’s malfunction report submitted a month later.
Even before the plant came online, it reported numerous malfunctions and experienced elevated emissions. On December 14, the Pennsylvania DEP issued Shell a Notice of Violation for excess VOC emissions. As the notice indicated, the facility’s reported VOC emissions for the 12-month period ending in October 2022 totaled 662.9 tons, which exceeds the 516.2-ton limit conditioned in Shell’s permit.
VOC emissions were even higher for the 12-month period ending in November 2022 (716.6 tons) and the 12-month period ending in December 2022 (741.5 tons), while total NOx emissions reached 345.4 tons through December, exceeding the permit’s NOx emissions limit of 328.5 tons. Shell received another Notice of Violation for these illegal emissions on February 13 – the same day of the major flaring incident.
A “tolerable” neighbor
Citing the plant’s documented air permit violations, environmental groups Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project, along with the watchdog campaign Eyes on Shell, wrote to the Pennsylvania DEP on February 17 urging the agency to put a temporary halt on the plant’s operations.
“This is an opportunity for the Pennsylvania [DEP] to use their ability to hold Shell accountable for the illegal pollution that is harming the community and temporarily halt operations so they can come under compliance,” Andie Grey of the watchdog group Eyes on Shell said during a February 23 webinar marking the plant’s 100th day of operations.
“DEP must act quickly to stop Shell’s ongoing violations of pollution limits that are meant to protect public health” Sarah Kula, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a press release. “Since the plant has come online, Shell has struggled to meet its permit limits, and DEP needs to order a pause to operations until Shell can comply with the law.”
The Pennsylvania DEP did not immediately respond to an inquiry seeking comment on the letter or its request.
The Environmental Integrity Project and Clean Air Council have issued notices of intent to take legal action against Shell for violations of its air permit. Community groups are also demanding that Shell hold another community meeting where it can respond to residents’ questions and concerns. The company last hosted a community meeting on August 31, 2022.
Peterson said that Shell needs to do much better if it intends to live up to its promise to the community of being a ‘good neighbor.’
“The health and safety of families and residents cannot be treated as simply the cost of doing business in Beaver County,” she said in the statement. “If Shell is incapable of being a good neighbor it should at least try to be a tolerable one.”
(Featured image: A ground flare caused by a malfunction at the Shell plant Sept. 6., before the plant officially came online. Photo by Mark Dixon/Blue Lens.)