Any day now, the 386-acre Shell petrochemical facility 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh will begin taking ethane from locally-fracked natural gas and blast it with enough heat to crack it into ethylene. It will make up to 1.6 million tons of tiny polyethylene pellets a year.

As part of the plastic-making process, the plant will release cancer-causing chemicals and other noxious pollutants under a permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“The harm is considerable.” says Edward C. Ketyer, M.D., President of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania. “People exposed to the emissions and pollution will get sick, because that’s what happens to people who live near petrochemical facilities like cracker plants!”

The plant is the region’s first and there are plans for more. On some nights in recent weeks, there’s been speculation online regarding an orange glow around the facility caused by ground flares reflecting off of fog. The flares are used to burn off excess gas and volatile organic chemicals. 

In Louisiana, where there’s a cluster of these cracker plants, the predominantly Black and low-income communities that surround them have elevated cancer rates and are known by the nickname “cancer alley.”

Needless to say, with the Monaca plant fully constructed and ready to get cracking, people who live in Beaver and nearby Ohio River Valley towns worry about what comes next.

But to hear it from Shell, there’s no need to fear.

“We don’t have an impact,” said Shell environmental and regulatory lead Kimberly Kaal, when asked during a community meeting about the dangers of living near the plant.

Question: What is the effect of living across the river from this plant ... Am I going to have health issues?

Answer: As a part of our permitting process for air plan approvals, we were required to conduct two air inhalation risk assessments. And we modeled also comparing what the ambient air quality standards in the area. And both of those modeling efforts showed that we were below the applicable standards and that we don't have an impact.

Shell Chemicals Virtual Community Meeting. All slides copyright Shell Chemicals.

Reached for comment, DEP spokesperson Lauren Fraley reiterated the department’s independent assessment of the plant, which concluded that the inhalation risks "are not unacceptable,” and the chronic and acute cancer risks “do not exceed the Department’s benchmarks.”

“Shell needs to do some serious catching up,” said Terrie Baumgardner, Clean Air Council’s Outreach Coordinator for Beaver County, citing a Harvard study dating back to 2017 which determined, among other things, that there is no such thing as a “safe” or low level amount of pollution at which the risk of early death diminishes.

According to the most recent air quality operating permit on the DEP website (pg. 16), Shell’s petrochemical facility is permitted to emit up to 32 tons of hazardous air pollutants every 12 months. These substances, including benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, and others known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious health impacts. Additionally, among other pollutants, the plant is permitted to emit up to 163.7 tons of fine particulate matter, specks of soot so small they can penetrate into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.

Matt Mehalik, Ph.D., executive director of Western Pennsylvania’s Breathe Project, said that the inhalation risk assessment showed elevated cancer risks below the regulatory threshold, an amount that is not a pure health standard but rather something negotiated with industry. Moreover, he argues modeling done for the Monaca plant did not take into consideration the complex temperature inversions that occur throughout the Ohio River Valley, which can cause air pollutants to remain trapped near ground level for prolonged periods of time.

“It is entirely conceivable that under inversion conditions, elevated cancer risk exposures could extend to the river valley communities of Vanport, Beaver, and also Monaca, Rochester, and New Brighton,” says Mehalik.

Shell’s remark came during a Shell “virtual community meeting” to update the public on the status of the plant, now 100% complete and ready to begin operations this summer. Community members could submit questions, but there was no way of knowing who asked questions or otherwise interact with or determine the number of those in attendance.

After Kaal’s comment, Shell Polymers’ Monaca general manager, Bill Watson, added that the health and safety of the community is Shell’s top priority, and that many of the plant’s 600 full-time employees live in the community.

“Even if they stay below the applicable standards, this does not mean there will not be tragic health consequences, and this is especially true for our children who are more vulnerable to pollutants,” says Rachel Meyer, of Moms Clean Air Force.

Meyer, a resident of Beaver County, said her group is committed to holding Shell responsible and fighting for stricter emissions regulations even after operations begin. This commitment is shared by organizations like the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community. Last month, the committee launched an Eyes on Shell citizen watchdog campaign, urging locals to keep health journals and report flaring incidents, foul odors, and other troubling signs.

During a recent earnings call, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said that the plant would be finished in May, ramp up production in the third quarter, and run "more or less at design capacity" sometime in the fourth.

Shell Chemicals announced its decision to locate the plant on a former lead and zinc smelting site in Monaca on March 5, 2012, saying Pennsylvania had won the “cracker sweepstakes” amid competition from neighboring states. Shell received the largest tax subsidy in Pennsylvania history for the project: $1.65 billion over 25 years.