If the first three months of operations at Shell’s petrochemical plant are any indication, the next 30 years are going to be stressful and hazardous for nearby Beaver Country residents.
The community is locked into a lasting and significant source of plastics production and dirty air pollution that will degrade the Commonwealth’s air quality and our environmental legacy for decades to come. Shell clearly isn’t interested in operating safely or responsibly ― so it’s up to regulators and citizens to force them to get emissions in check.
The Shell Polymers Monaca plant in Potter Township officially began operations in November of last year. Even before opening day, the plant was already posing a threat to the surrounding community. From the very beginning, Shell has not managed to keep its pollution to safe and legal levels. It has set a terrible precedent for decades to come, and there’s no reason to expect Shell will act differently ― unless it’s forced to do so.
The Environmental Integrity Project and Clean Air Council are taking steps to force Shell to take their responsibility to residents and the environment seriously. Our organizations have filed a notice of intent to sue Shell for the consistent violation of air pollution limits.
In September 2022, the plant emitted 512 tons of volatile organic compounds, nearly reaching in that one month the 12-month permitted limit of its approved volatile organic compound emissions (516.2 tons in any consecutive 12-month period). These chemicals contribute to smog and can cause nausea, nerve damage and other health problems. Shell also emitted the dangerous pollutants nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide from sources at the plant in the final months of 2022 at rates that exceed permit limits.
It’s important to note that these limits were agreed upon by Shell and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) through an in-depth permitting process. The fact that Shell began violating them immediately underscores just how little regard its leaders have shown for the residents harmed by the massive facility.
Those residents have had to be extra vigilant in ensuring their families are safe. The plant has caused unexpected noises in the middle of the night, odd smells, unexpected flaring activities, and more. With few official updates from Shell, community members and environmental advocates have taken to sharing information on social media and elsewhere to stay informed and connected. Eyes On Shell is one group monitoring the refinery’s actions and keeping local residents updated.
Clearly, it shouldn’t be left up to citizens and nonprofit groups to decipher flames brightening the skies or chemical odors and figure out how to protect their loved ones. Shell should be updating the community and taking every action to protect surrounding residents through safer operations and no environmental violations. The public should be able to rely on DEP to force Shell to do better.
The Shell petrochemicals complex is ground zero for an identity crisis playing out in the fossil fuel space. As the world recognizes the need to transition away from dirty fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy, companies like Shell are pivoting to massive investments in plastics manufacturing. The cracker plant on the Ohio River is a prime example: it can produce as much as 3.5 billion pounds of plastic pellets in a single year. Yet Shell’s own leaders have been caught questioning the impact of three more decades of single-use plastic production and wondering if the company will one day “take responsibility” for all that environmental damage.
We demand that Shell take responsibility now. It’s time for Shell to take responsibility for the unsafe pollution and start operating under the permitted emissions limits. It’s time for Shell to take responsibility to inform and protect the community it joined when it began this massive project. It’s time for Shell to take responsibility for the generations of Pennsylvania families it threatens with its reckless operations and environmental destruction. Tell your local lawmakers and DEP that it’s time to hold Shell accountable.
Joseph O. Minott is executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council, one of the leading nonprofit advocates for Pennsylvania’s environmental protection.