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  1. Randolph W. Shannon
    May 6, 2023 @ 5:18 pm

    Your article “Outrage over fresh chemical leak at Shell plastics plant” should help residents in this area of Beaver County and downwind in Pittsburgh understand the risks involved in the Shell cracker plant. I would add that this cracker plant received a significant amount of funding from Pennsylvania and its subsidiaries. Without this underwriting I doubt the cracker plant would be an economically viable producer of plastic waste.

    Your article led me to thinking about the 6 years I worked in the R&D facility as a materials analyst at the St. Joe Mineral/Zinc Corporation of America zinc smelter that was located on the site of the cracker plant. Your article mostly concerns people living around the cracker.

    I believe it would also benefit the workers at the cracker and their families if you would investigate and expose the level of mercury (atomic symbol Hg) exposure. Exposure to Hg is a very toxic for mammals. I have heard that some workers at the cracker who were tasked with excavation of the topsoil for various purposes became ill from Hg exposure.

    The cracker was built on the site of the St. Joe Minerals/Zinc Corporation of America zinc smelter. This facility was built around 1930. It processed zinc ore, zinc sulfide – ZnS, for about 70 years. The ore was mined in St. Lawrence County, NY at the Balmat-Edwards mine complex. The average Hg content of the ore was 8%. This would produce around 8,000 tons of Hg per annum.

    A majority of the Hg was recovered as pure Hg liquid. However a significant amount of Hg was emitted from the high stacks that exhausted the gases from the smelting of the ore concentrate. This aerosol Hg was very dense so it traveled a few hundred yards and dropped on the hillside across Route 18 east of the Ohio River.

    When I started working at the St. Minerals R&D center as a microscopist, I rented an apartment less than a mile from smelter, known colloquially as the Red Rooster. It was located on the east side of Route 18 on the hill where the Hg droplets fell out of the offgas. At some point I put on my hiking boots and walked the hillside, not yet aware about the Hg emissions from the smelter. I did know what liquid Hg looked like. I was amazed when I stepped on the stunted weedy undergrowth dotted with dead trees when the shiny liquid Hg would pool around my boots.

    Now when Shell prepared the old St. Joe Minerals site it stated that the contaminated site along the Ohio River would be covered with a thick layer of soil. I can’t recall if it was 12 or 20 feet. But it was a respectable cover.

    Now here’s the punchline: Shell covered the smelter site by bulldozing that Hg saturated hillside down across Route 18. They then covered that thick layer of Hg saturated soil with another layer of clay. I have no idea how thick that clay is. But it made perfect sense when I heard that workers doing excavation got sick from Hg exposure.

    For the Balmat Hg content see “Geochemistry of sphalerite concentrates from the Balmat-Edwards Zinc Ores, St. Lawrence County, New York, Lehigh University, 1-1-1979.