After repeated air pollution violations, Shell plastics plant hit with federal lawsuit

By Dana Drugmand

A unit of the British multinational Shell plc is repeatedly violating state and federal air pollution rules and harming the health of area residents, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court by an environmental group after a series of air permit violations at the company’s new plastics production plant in Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by the Clean Air Council against Shell Chemical Appalachia, seeks monetary penalties and demands an end to the plant’s release of illegally high levels of pollutants that include nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Breathing VOCs can cause difficulty breathing and nausea and damage the central nervous system and other organs, according to the American Lung Association. Some can cause cancer.

“Illegal air emissions, smoking flares, and malfunctions at the Plant have resulted in excess emissions of VOCs, NOx, particulate matter (“PM”), benzene, and other harmful pollution,” the complaint states.

Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The filing comes six months after Shell announced the start of operations at the plant in November and one month after a malfunction at the facility’s waste water treatment system caused a chemical leak that released a foul odor and sent cancer-causing benzene and other toxins over the fence-line and into the surrounding community.

Residents reported experiencing headaches, nausea, irritated throats and watery eyes during the April 11 chemical leak incident. Shell’s passive air monitors recorded benzene levels of up to 110 micrograms per cubic meter that week, far exceeding the 29 micrograms per cubic meter minimal risk level under federal guidelines.

In addition to the benzene release, uncombusted emissions documented by optical gas imaging spewed from the plant’s ground flare on April 13 and 14, according to video released by the environmental organization Earthworks. These incidents were just the latest in a series of what the groups say are major pollution events at Shell’s Pennsylvania facility.