Environmentalists Fear a Massive New Plastics Plant Near Pittsburgh Will Worsen Pollution and Stimulate Fracking

Fifteen years after Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry began to raise worries about air and water pollution, the industry’s critics now fear a new source of harmful emissions from the fledgling petrochemical industry, which is poised to become a major customer for the state’s abundant gas reserves.

In a state that has long nurtured the extraction of oil, coal and now gas, environmentalists warn that a vast new Shell plant on the banks of the Ohio River 30 miles north of Pittsburgh will add to air and water problems in a region that has endured decades of pollution from the steel and coal industries.

The plant, which is expected to open before the end of 2022, will convert ethane, a form of natural gas, into ethylene, a building block for plastics. The operation will produce millions of tons of tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles” which opponents predict will leak into the Ohio River and beyond during shipment, and will contribute to a flood of plastics that are polluting the world’s oceans and clogging landfills.

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After being lured to Pennsylvania with the promise of $1.6 billion in state tax credits, and being awarded a state air permit to issue more volatile organic compounds than that emitted by the Clairton Coke Works, a notorious local polluter, the “cracker” plant appears to be getting the same easy ride from state officials as the fracking industry did starting in the mid-2000s, critics say. 

The Shell plant, in Monaca, will take ethane, a liquid hydrocarbon separated from fracked natural gas, and “crack” its molecules to make ethylene and polyethylene resin pellets called nurdles, which are melted down and turned into all things plastic, from bottles to car parts. 

“We are seeing a lot of these things repeat themselves with the cracker, and with the specter of petrochemical development in the region,” said Alison Steele, executive director of the Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit that has been monitoring the health impacts of the region’s natural gas industry, and representing affected residents, since 2012.

Speaking at a webinar on “Fracked Plastics: Petrochemical, Policy & Public Health” on Sept. 28, Steele said the new plant has already received favorable treatment from state officials, including Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and may enjoy the same status as the natural gas industry that supplies it when it begins operating soon.

She argued that gas-industry regulations are based not on safety but on what constitutes acceptable risk for operators and state officials. Regulations are often lax, and may not be effectively enforced by officials who focus on the industry’s creation of jobs rather than its threats to public health, she said.

“The promise of economic benefits has very often driven the conversation, and caution around health impacts have made less of an appearance or been overshadowed,” she said.

Pennsylvania’s fossil fuel industry has long been favored by the Republican-controlled state legislature. In 2012, it passed the wide-ranging Act 13, which curbed local government rights to use zoning to control gas-industry development in their towns, authorized the state to preempt local ordinances, and allowed the industry to prevent the public disclosure of fracking chemicals that were suspected of harming public health.

Although some parts of the law were later struck down by the courts, much of it remains in effect, Steele said. She argued that the state’s efforts to regulate the Shell plant appear to be following the same pattern.

She said state policy does not reflect how the oil and gas industry affects public health. “There’s a persistent gap between what’s known and what’s done with that knowledge,” she said. “If there has been a body of scientific evidence, which now there absolutely is, it has not been incorporated into a policy approach.”

Advocates like Steele say the state’s approach to the fossil fuel industry is shown by lax enforcement by the Department of Environmental Protection. 

Jamar Thrasher, a spokesman for the DEP, rejected the accusation that it does not enforce regulations aimed at protecting public health. He said the department conducted some 25,000 inspections of oil and gas facilities in 2020, the latest year for which data are available, and issued more than 9,300 notices of violation. He said the department has imposed millions of dollars in penalties, including a fine of $30 million on the Texas-based pipeline company Energy Transfer after its Revolution Pipeline, carrying natural gas, exploded in Beaver County in 2018.

“DEP disputes any notion that Pennsylvania’s environmental laws and regulations are not enforced,” Thrasher said.

The Shell plant, which reportedly cost between $6 billion and $10 billion, is expected to create about 600 permanent jobs on a 386-acre site that was once used for zinc smelting. Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said there’s no date set yet for opening, but “hopefully soon.” 

The company agreed to monitor air emissions on the perimeter of its plant following settlement in 2017 of a lawsuit by the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Group, two nonprofits.

As the Shell plant prepares to open, activists in the Pittsburgh area are conducting baseline testing of air and water to show any environmental impacts when the plant begins operating.

“We’re doing a lot of investigations, and making sure that they know that we’re watching, and they can’t just operate and put anything into our waterways just because it’s easy for them,” said Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, an environmental group that monitors the health of the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in the region.

VanTassel told webinar participants that activists have already found “micronurdles”— tiny pellets of plastic— in the river near the plant, and they see those as warning sign of more plastic pollution when the facility is up and running. In recent months, there have been discharges of foam into the river from the main outfall, and there was a spill of 2,500 gallons of sulfuric acid from the plant in March this year, she said.

“They are not even operational, and we’ve already seen violations of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts,” she said.

Smith, the Shell spokesman, said that the plant, yet to begin operations, was not the source of those pellets found in the river. 

“We have no reason to believe the pellets in question came from Shell Polymers Monaca,” he said. “There are a number of safeguards in place to ensure that remains the case. We will always comply with regulations and report violations to the proper authorities in a timely manner. Our priority remains the health of people and the environment and will continue to seek out and apply best practices to ensure our operations have no negative impact.”

Efforts to measure the plant’s air impacts also include the installation of air monitors around the Pittsburgh region by citizen activists including Mark Dixon, an independent air-quality advocate and filmmaker who has been working on the issue since 2014.

Dixon and his supporters fix devices about the size of soda cans to private buildings. Data gathered by the sensors are transmitted in near real time to two websites – AirViz and Purple Air – that show air quality in specific locations.

The campaign, Dixon said, is designed to supplement the efforts of regulators, and Shell itself, to measure any air impacts from the new plant, and to show that there’s a network of activists who are also gathering data. Dixon said the campaign is designed to show that there are “other eyes on Shell.”  

Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit based at Bennington College, Vermont, said her campaign is speaking out against petrochemical producers like the Shell plant because of their ties to the plastics industry.

“The petrochemical buildout is very much linked to the problem of plastic pollution in our ocean, in our bodies,” she said in opening remarks at the webinar. “It’s a health issue, it’s an environmental justice issue.”

Enck, a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, said opposition to the petrochemical industry has been fueled by a recent Louisiana court ruling that invalidated 15 state air permits issued to the $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex some 55 miles west of New Orleans.

The ruling, by Judge Trudy White, rejected the state’s grounds for issuing the permits to emit 800 tons a year of toxic pollution into a predominantly Black, low-income community, and to produce 13.6 million tons per year of greenhouse gases, about the equivalent of 3.5 coal-fired power plants. 

“I think that court decision has galvanized activism all over Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania and other states that are facing threats by petrochemical facilities,” Enck told the webinar.

Among the Shell plant’s biggest impacts, environmentalists say, will be its appetite for natural gas from fracked wells sunk into the region’s Marcellus and Utica Shale gas fields—among the most abundant gas reserves in the world.

Dr. John Stolz, a microbiologist at Duquesne University and a longtime critic of the industry, has estimated that the volume of gas needed by the Shell plant will require fracked gas from 1,000 new wells every five to 10 years.

Smith, the Shell spokesman, has said that natural gas will fuel a cogeneration plant on site, producing electricity, and that any excess power from the plant will be sold to the grid, which would potentially reduce carbon emissions from other fossil fuel use.

Jill Antares Hunkler, a seventh-generation Ohio River Valley resident, said during the  webinar that she fears the new plant will hurt public health in the same way that a concentration of chemical plants have been linked to illness in Louisiana’s so-called cancer alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“I’m living in a sacrifice zone due to the polluting and poorly regulated oil and gas industry,” Hunkler said. “Now the petrochemical industry will create even more toxic air pollution in the Ohio River Valley.

“The regulatory agencies have already failed to protect communities from air and water pollution, and now are promoting cracking to make plastic, which is the last thing this beautiful planet needs.”

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