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Shell Shovels Plastic into Pittsburgh’s Rivers!

The Shell plant sits on a site oozing with legacy contaminants like zinc, thallium, and aluminium. These nasties are happily leaching into the Ohio River.


Once a month for nearly two years, Evan Clark, the Waterkeeper at Three Rivers Waterkeeper, has heroically boated along the Ohio River to Shell’s monstrous new plastics plant in Beaver County. This beast of a facility cranks out up to 1.6 million tons of plastic per year, thanks to the magic of fracked gas. Clark’s mission? To spot the devilish little plastic pellets known as nurdles and keep tabs on the plant’s wastewater outfalls. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty.

Since the plant’s grand debut in the fall of 2022, Clark has detected strong chemical odours at the outfalls—red flags for contaminants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs). And the nurdles? He’s found them by the truckload. These tiny plastic fiends, used to make everything from soda bottles to car parts, are flooding the riverbanks.

In one delightful winter project, Clark and his team scooped up samples from 11 square feet of Ohio River shoreline, both upstream and downstream of Shell’s Plastic Wonderland. They found over 700 nurdles in various shades and shapes. According to Clark, the sheer volume of plastic bits is a testament to the industry’s rampant pollution. “If we’re finding that amount of plastic spread through our environment that is the responsibility of manufacturers—these are plastic nurdles, they’re not from consumers—we have a real serious issue with the lack of regulation of plastics manufacturing,” he said. No kidding, Sherlock.

Heather Hulton VanTassel, the executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, chimed in on the environmental catastrophe unfolding in Beaver County. The Shell plant sits on a site oozing with legacy contaminants like zinc, thallium, and aluminium. These nasties are happily leaching into the Ohio River. “They’re self-reporting a lot of heavy metal contamination through their stormwater drainage into the Ohio River basin there,” Hulton VanTassel said. Translation: Shell’s got a “report it and forget it” policy.

Clark pointed out that Shell’s slapdash remediation efforts—basically throwing a few inches of soil over an old industrial wasteland—do little to stop stormwater from dragging pollutants into the river. “They took over a really old industrial site that initially had been a lead smelter and then a zinc smelter,” he said. Shell’s band-aid solutions aren’t cutting it.

Adding to the toxic cocktail, Shell’s wastewater is spewing out benzene and other VOCs—known carcinogens that are a nightmare to monitor. The plant’s outfall reeks of chemicals, but hey, Shell’s still cranking out the plastics and the pollution, working hard to tweak their tech while continuing to poison the air and water.

The infamous nurdles are wreaking havoc too. These lentil-sized plastic pellets look like fish eggs to unsuspecting critters, leading to a buffet of plastic ingestion that messes up their systems. Nurdles alter riverbed densities and break down into microplastics, which then sneak into drinking water and, eventually, human bodies. Yum.

So, what does the future hold for Pittsburgh’s rivers with Shell’s plant in full swing? “It really depends on how Shell acts, and ultimately, we don’t know these answers,” Hulton VanTassel said. But if Shell’s track record of violations and pollution is any indicator, the outlook is bleak.

Residents need to wake up and demand accountability. As Hulton VanTassel puts it, “We shouldn’t be waiting for everybody who is exposed to get cancer or have chronic lung issues or die. Rather, we know these chemicals cause harm, therefore we should protect our communities from exposure.” Amen to that.

Bringing Shell’s cracker plant to Pittsburgh has opened the floodgates for plastic pollution, turning Steel City into Plastic City. With fracking, oil and gas extraction, train derailments, and now nurdles spilling everywhere, it’s a plastic apocalypse. And let’s not forget the charming byproducts that seep into our waterways, eventually making their way into our homes and bodies.

But hope isn’t lost. Pittsburghers can demand better regulations and hold polluters accountable. We don’t have to accept filthy rivers as the norm. It’s time to fight back against Shell and its plastic empire before the entire city drowns in nurdles and VOCs. Because if we don’t, who will?

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