SHELL ETHANE CRACKER PLANT — Excess Air Pollution as VOCs & GHGs

by Duane Nichols on November 25, 2022

This huge chemical plant fills the Ohio River Valley at Monaca, PA

A New Shell Plant in Pennsylvania Will Soon Become the State’s Second Largest Emitter of Volatile Organic Chemicals

From an Article by Reid Frazier, StateImpact Pennsylvania, October 16, 2022

Shell’s ethane cracker is scheduled to come online this fall producing up to 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets a year. The plant will produce this plastic by processing ethane, a component of the natural gas found in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations nearby.

Construction of the plant was Pennsylvania’s largest industrial project since World War II, according to Gov. Tom Wolf, and benefitted from the largest state subsidy ever—a $1.65 billion tax credit, plus various state and local tax breaks.

More than 8,500 construction workers, many from out of state, crowded Beaver County over the last few years to construct the plant. When it is finished, it will employ 600 permanent workers.

The cracker will also be permitted to be a large polluter — the second biggest emitter of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in the state. Stricter air quality rules and an energy system that relies less on polluting coal have made the air in and around Pittsburgh healthier in recent years. Many now ask: will this plant reverse gains to air quality?

To help address what the project will mean for the region, we asked for readers’ questions about the plant, and solicited help from experts to answer them.


Q: How much is Pennsylvania paying per job per year in tax credits? How many jobs are being created, and how much will they pay? Would Pennsylvania have been better off just giving the money to that number of citizens in a “job lottery?”
– Ira Beckerman, New Cumberland, Pa.

A: Since the legislature passed the $1.65 billion tax break for Shell in Pennsylvania in 2012, this question has loomed over the project: Could the state have put that money to better use?

The question hits on what economists call “opportunity costs,” which “represent the forgone benefit that would have been derived from an option not chosen.” The total number of permanent workers at the plant will be around 600, according to Shell. A broader impact is likely because Shell will purchase from local suppliers, and local Shell workers will spend some of their earnings with local merchants.

Not counting for inflation, it appears that the state will spend $122,000 to $165,000 per job per year. (That’s not including the workers hired to build the plant). Whether that’s worth it is complicated by the question of whether the plant would have been built regardless of the credit. Shell has said the answer to that question is no.

The Ohio River Valley Institute reports that while the plant was under construction, the county’s economic output and wages grew. But the county still lost population, and that indicators like jobs and poverty levels in the county lagged behind state and national trends. “So far,” the report said, “prosperity has not arrived.”


Q: Pittsburgh already has some of the worst air quality in the country. What will the company do to ensure this facility doesn’t make the air pollution in our region worse?
– Brendon Slotterback, Pittsburgh

Q: I’ve read about cancer alley in (Louisiana) and other areas where cracker plants are located. We have significant numbers of pediatric asthma in western Pa. Are all lung conditions going to get worse when this plant is running at full capacity?
– Michael Mannion, Pittsburgh

Q: Shell states in the Shell Risk Assessment submitted to the DEP on Jan. 28, 2015 that 55 “Compounds of Potential Concern” will be emitted by the plant once it goes into operation. Many of these are carcinogens. What can be said from a scientific and air quality perspective about air quality?
– Debra Smit, Pittsburgh, The Breathe Project

Q: Who will be monitoring pollution from this site? And how will it be regulated? Some claim it will generate $3.7B per year in total economic value, but what are the total indirect costs in terms of health and environmental impacts?
– Ryan Walsh, Pittsburgh

A: Air quality was the most common topic readers wanted to know about. Southwestern Pennsylvania has long failed to meet federal air quality guidelines. But because of declining use of coal and tighter air pollution rules, the area around Pittsburgh is getting cleaner.

That still doesn’t mean the air in Pittsburgh is safe, says Deborah Gentile, allergy and asthma specialist with East Suburban Pediatrics near Pittsburgh and Medical Director at Community Partners in Asthma Care. “The World Health Organization states that there is no level of air pollution that is safe,” Gentile said.

Gentile said the EPA’s current air pollution standards rely on older data, and newer studies show that air pollution is harmful at lower levels than EPA standards allow. For that reason, the EPA’s scientific advisory panel has asked the agency to set tougher standards for particle pollution, which the agency could do as soon as next year.

“Nearby residents are already experiencing high levels of air pollution and the levels can only go higher once the facility becomes operational,” Gentile said. “Nearby residents will bear the burden of air pollution and its adverse health effects for the benefit of others who are not in the impact region.”

Air pollution causes a broad array of health problems; breathing in fine particles has been shown to cause increased mortality, as well as higher rates of heart attacks, high blood pressure, and stroke, Gentile said. It also causes lung problems, like asthma and COPD, cancer and dementia.

The Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a concern because some VOCs are classified as hazardous air pollutants, or air toxics, a broad class of airborne chemicals “known to cause cancer and other serious health impacts,” according to the EPA. Gentile said these chemicals on their own can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, difficulty breathing, nausea, damage to the central nervous system and cancer.

They are also a concern because once mixed in the air, they form ozone, a lung irritant that can cause health problems for people with asthma and other conditions, even at “relatively low levels,” according to the EPA.

Gentile said most experts consider a half-mile from a pollution source a distance where exposure to pollutants drops off, while others say 1-2 miles “is a reasonable estimate.” But the Ohio River Valley’s unique geography—whereby weather inversions can trap pollutants close to the ground—means “it is possible that more distant exposure could have adverse health effects.”

Of the chemicals that Shell says it is likely to emit, benzene and formaldehyde, both carcinogens, have “the lowest threshold concentrations for health effects.” Shell estimates the plant could emit 1 ton of benzene per year.

As part of a settlement with environmental groups, Shell agreed to install and operate fenceline monitors at the plant to monitor emissions. As a condition of its state air quality permit, Shell is required to perform periodic air monitoring at the plant, report emergencies and malfunctions that may result in pollution events, operate continuous air monitors in parts of the plant with the greatest potential for air pollution, and monitor and fix leaks.

The PA-DEP, which oversees the plant’s air quality permits, also has air monitors stationed nearby, in Beaver Falls, Beaver Valley, Brighton Township, Hookstown, Potter Township, Vanport, and at the historic Fort McIntosh site in Beaver Borough.

The network is designed to provide PA-DEP with data on air quality that average Pennsylvanians are exposed to on a daily basis. CMU has installed monitors near the cracker. And nearby residents have on their houses through the Purple Air Network.

(Note ~ This Article as presented here has been edited for length and clarity.)

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