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Environmental groups preparing for production at Shell’s cracker plant

Herald-Star

Environmental groups preparing for production at Shell’s cracker plant

MIKE JONES: Staff writer: SEP 30, 2022

MONACA — Environmental groups are mobilizing to monitor air and water quality around Royal Dutch Shell’s soon-to-open petrochemical cracker plant in Beaver County.

Several groups held a joint video conference Tuesday night that attracted more than 200 people who listened how various organizations have already begun testing air and water samples to set a baseline before the plant along the Ohio River near Monaca officially opens later this year.

While most people knew little about Marcellus Shale when the natural gas drilling boom began in Western Pennsylvania and the Tri-State Area in the late 2000s, Environmental Health Project Executive Director Alison Steele said groups like hers are working to educate the public on what to expect from the cracker plant.

She said various environmental groups have positioned numerous air and water monitoring stations around Beaver County, while Shell is required to monitor and share results from four sites at the plant and 20 around the property. The Peters Township-based group has also produced baseline testing results from a “monitoring network” to see if there are changes to the environment when the plant is operating. Steele said the group is pushing for accountability and trying to get comprehensive health policies from state regulators so residents aren’t the ones “fighting the fight.”

Steele also walked the 225 participants on the video conference through a brief history of the plant in which Pennsylvania’s state government offered a $1.6 billion tax incentive to Shell to build the plant here in exchange for 600 ongoing jobs. Construction on the plant began in November 2017 on the 340-acre property in Potter Township that was formerly a zinc smelter plant.

“The question on everyone’s mind is, ‘Why here? Why now?’” she said.

As renewable energy sources are becoming more affordable, the natural gas industry has moved to find other production uses for its product. The cracker plant will separate ethane from natural gas to produce ethylene that allows for the creation of plastic products commonly used by consumers.

Heather Hulton VanTassel, the executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said her group has already seen evidence that the plant is starting some production, as they have found plastic “nurdles” in the river. Nurdles are produced at the plant and then shipped across the country for manufacturers to create various plastic products. Those little pellets can be ingested by wildlife or hold dangerous chemicals that can be released into the environment, she said.

She said they’re currently working in the area on boat patrols to find nurdles and have baseline water quality readings that will allow them to know if there are problems when the plant is fully operational. She said the environmental organization will continue monitoring water quality in the Ohio River and around its watershed to make sure there are no harmful chemicals being discharged that could endanger humans or wildlife.

She added that the environmental organizations monitoring the air and water quality don’t want that area of Beaver County to become a “sacrifice zone” for industry.

“We’re here to monitor water,” she said. “And we’re going to work hard so we don’t turn into that place. … “We’re putting pressure on DEP (Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection) to hold them accountable.”

The specific date on which the plant will begin official operations was not immediately known. An e-mail sent to Royal Dutch Shell’s headquarters Wednesday morning about the seminar’s environmental concerns was not immediately answered.

The hour-long virtual meeting was organized by Beyond Plastics and began with a bit of breaking news, as Judith Enck, president of Vermont-based environmental group, announced that a “side deal” negotiated by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin to cut bureaucratic red tape with new energy-related projects had stalled. Manchin, D-W.Va., had reached a tentative deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in order to support the federal Inflation Reduction Act this summer. However, the deal had received tepid support from Democrats and Republicans, dooming the initiative.

“We’re starting off on a high note,” Enck said to start the meeting.

Alexis Goldsmith, the national organizing director for Beyond Plastics, said environmental groups played a critical role in opposing the legislation and were one of the reasons “why the side deal with Manchin has not gone through.” She pointed to that “tenacious response” as an example of what local groups are doing to protect the environment for the community living around the Shell cracker plant.

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