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Preparing for petrochemicals

Shell expects to start making plastics in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, this summer. Do neighboring communities know what to expect?

by Rick Mullin
May 9, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 16
A brilliantly illuminated manufacturing landscape on a river featuring a plastics plant.

Credit: Julie Dermansky | Shell’s ethylene cracker illuminates the night sky along the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Residents in nearby communities are concerned about the effects of light pollution from the plant.


In brief

As Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals puts the finishing touches on an ethylene cracker that has been under construction for the past 5 years in Beaver County, residents in the small towns surrounding the plant are considering their future. With plastics emerging as a new dominant industry, many are looking forward to an economic shot in the arm for the once-prosperous steelmaking region. Others look at the looming facility on the Ohio River with a sense of dread, uncertain of the impact it will have on health and the environment. For better or worse, the region is poised for a transformation that is scheduled to get underway this summer.

On Sept. 22, 2021, people living along the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, were alarmed by a peculiar odor that many likened to the smell of maple syrup.

“I had stepped out onto the back porch, and as soon as I stepped out, it just smelled so good,” says Donna Doutt, who lives in Beaver, a river valley community less than 3 km upstream from a world-scale chemical plant that Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals intends to start up later this year. “I thought it was one of my neighbors cooking something.”

But the smell was too strong to be a cooking odor. Another neighbor told her she’d heard that the Shell plant had an accident of some sort.

Doutt, a minister in the United Methodist Church, says she remembered being approached by plant opponents some years earlier when Shell was beginning construction in nearby Potter Township. “They said that once that plant’s up and running, it’s going to stink,” says Doutt, who has family that have worked on construction at the Shell site. “Apparently they knew somebody that lived near one like it, and they said it smelled up the neighborhood.”

Matt Stewart of Brighton Township, a community uphill from Beaver, also experienced the smell. “As I recall it lasted a couple of days,” says Stewart, a city planner for a nearby town. “It didn’t quite smell like maple syrup. Kind of a good smell, but kind of weird.”

In the days that followed, a flurry of posts on local social media news pages called out the strange odor. Speculation focused on the Shell ethylene cracker and polymerization plant, which is scaled to manufacture 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene pellets annually.

Shell responded on its Facebook page on Sept. 26, confirming an odor from the plant that the company said may have been associated with a procedure that prevents cooling-tower corrosion. The next day, Shell received a notice of violation from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the emission of a malodorous air contaminant. The department had received 16 complaints about the smell from area residents. “In at least one instance, the complainant was a local official contacting DEP on behalf of more than one constituent,” Lauren Fraley, community relations coordinator for the department, says in an email response to queries.

Shell informed the DEP that sodium tolyltriazole, a copper corrosion inhibitor, caused the odor. On its website, the company describes an accidental mixture of the chemical with bleach, causing the odor. Shell agreed to pay a civil penalty of $4,313.

Historically one of the most heavily industrialized counties in the US, Beaver is inured to industrial pollution. Many in the region view the cracker, which is built on the site of a shuttered zinc works, as a source of much-needed jobs. Others are on the fence, eager for economic benefits but wary of the plant’s environmental impact. The venture has staunch opponents as well. But the plant, which Shell announced in 2012 and began building 5 years ago, has not been the talk of Main Street or social media.

That may change. A Sept. 24 post on “The News Alerts of Beaver County” page on Facebook noted the smell, asking if anyone knew where it came from. “Cracker plant!” Debbie Sunny Cline commented. Many in the 95-comment thread agreed. Nearly everyone smelled it. “It’s been unbearable for the last three days in Vanport,” commented Jessica Kunca, referring to a town across the river from the plant.

Stewart notes a groundswell of concern among friends and neighbors. “When we found out the smell was because of the Shell plant, it bothered a lot of people,” he says. “We have friends who were like, ‘That’s the last step. This is a harbinger of what’s to come.’ It really freaked out a lot of people.”

Projected boom

A man in a white shirt and tie with his jacket over his shoulder in front of a large factory.
Credit: Tad Makowieki, Ryno Productions
Beaver County commissioner Jack Manning says Shell’s arrival marks the beginning of a turnaround for a once-prosperous steelmaking region in western Pennsylvania.

County commissioner Jack Manning is winding up a breakfast meeting at Café Kolache in Beaver and stays to discuss what he characterizes as a “mostly positive” attitude toward the Shell cracker in a once-prosperous region, proud of its industrial heritage.

“The steel from the steel mills not only helped win World War II but built everything from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge,” he says. “And everything in between.” The Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, one of several major steel producers in the region, owned a huge mill in nearby Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. The company employed thousands.

But as steel went into decline in the 1970s and 1980s, so did the population, dropping from 210,000 at its peak in 1972 to about 170,000 in 2012, the year Shell announced plans to build the cracker. “Our school-age population went from 45,000 down to 21,000,” Manning says.

Shell’s announcement marked a turnaround, he says. “It started to mobilize a lot of people, including the unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and other economic development people,” Manning says. “I know there are some environmental groups that cherry-picked some data that say it hasn’t paid off, but I can tell you from an economic standpoint it has.”

Manning, who headed the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce when Shell came to the region in 2012, acknowledges that Shell plans to employ only 600 at the site, a minuscule number compared with the tens of thousands of jobs lost since the 1970s. But he says the economic revitalization spurred by Shell will be a huge job creator throughout the region, breathing life into manufacturing.

“You can’t just have a service economy,” says Manning, who worked in the chemical industry for 37 years, beginning with Shell in New Jersey and later as plant manager at Huntsman’s polystyrene facility in Potter Township. Pointing to a laptop computer at an adjacent table, he adds, “I get really annoyed that people think they can sit in Café Kolache all day and that that’s how everybody is going to be working. You have to have people who work with their minds and their hands to produce things.”

Helen Kissick, who heads the Chamber of Commerce today, points to a 2021 economic impact assessment by Robert Morris University. The report, commissioned by Shell, estimates the plant will deliver between 240 and 450 jobs on-site for Beaver County residents and 777 to 1,444 jobs throughout the county.

The Shell plant’s economic benefits will reach well beyond the region, according to the report, which estimates that 11,197 jobs will be created in Pennsylvania as a result of the project. It projects that labor income over 40 years, the estimated life of the plant, will be $22.4 billion and that total added value to the state will be $81.7 billion.

Other regional economic development officials describe broad benefits from a venture that will impact plastics fabricators, regional gas extractors, and local businesses generally. Lew Villotti, president of the Beaver County Corporation for Economic Development, says the cracker, one of five petrochemical ventures envisioned for the region when Shell first came to Pennsylvania, promises to establish a dominant industry cluster—an essential locus of economic activity that has been lacking in the region with the departure of steel.

Patty Horvatich, vice president of business investment at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, a 10-county economic development organization, cites a recently announced carbon-capture alliance between Shell, US Steel, EQT, and other companies as a job-creating venture that will promote environmentally responsible manufacturing while creating a low-carbon hydrogen hub.

“Our region is very well poised to be a leader in carbon capture, sequestration, and hydrogen,” Horvatich says. “We have the natural gas; we have the industries that are difficult to get to net zero—those hard-to-impact industries like steel and others. We have the workforce to do it; we have the natural resources to do it. And Shell is actually leading us in that effort.”

Around the cracker
Towns in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, closest to Shell's new plastics plant
A map of a section of Beaver County showing the Shell plastics plant and surrounding communities.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN

A loss of momentum

Opponents of the plant, however, view the advent of chemical production based on ethane extracted via hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as a giant step backward for southwest Pennsylvania. The stage is set, they say, for one economic monoculture, steel from coal and iron ore, to be replaced by another, chemicals and plastics from fossil fuels.

Matthew Mehalik is executive director of the Breathe Project, host to a collaboration of environmentalist community groups in the Ohio River valley. He laments the loss of momentum on environmental remediation and investment in clean technology that began in the late 1990s and ran into a wall with the 2010 election, when the state legislature and governor’s office flipped to the Republican Party. What Mehalik calls the region’s “renaissance” was further disrupted with Shell’s arrival.

“We presented large tax breaks to incentivize the build-out of what is, once again, a high-volume, low-margin commodity-based business that leaves environmental damage in its wake and during its operation,” he says. “It’s like we forgot our own history.”

I still think this is a very attractive project.
Hilary Mercer, senior vice president, Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals

Mehalik observes that people across the region are inclined to shrug off the health impacts of an industry that will create jobs. “When you talk to people on the street about Shell, you are talking to people who have endured the zinc plant, major coal-fired power plants, existing chemical plants, nuclear power plants, all at their doorstep for generations,” he says. “There is a normalization of a deep acceptance of health consequences for employment.”

He and other plant opponents point to a 2019 study published by Carnegie Mellon University suggesting that the jobs-for-health trade-off is not a favorable one (Nat. Sustainability, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0420-1). The study estimates that between 2004 and 2016, shale development in the Ohio River valley added $21 billion to the economy but had a cost impact of $23 billion based on 1,200–4,600 premature deaths related to industrial air pollution.

Manning and others say the idea of an emerging fossil fuel hegemon ignores sectors such as technology, education, and health care, as well as small businesses that are likely to benefit from regional revitalization. Opponents also point to a 2021 report published by the Ohio River Valley Institute, an environmental think tank, claiming that the economic growth and business investments promised for Beaver County have not materialized.

According to the report, the region’s population has declined since 2012, with “zero growth” in employment and businesses and no reduction in poverty. “In fact, the county has fallen behind both the state and the nation in nearly every measure of economic activity,” it says.

Horvatich at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance acknowledges that businesses that will use Shell’s plastics have not moved into the region as quickly as development agencies anticipated. “But when you put it in perspective, there aren’t any pellets,” she says, referring to the plastic pellets Shell will manufacture. “How can you expect these companies to make location or expansion decisions if they don’t have product yet? So we are very much looking forward to seeing those pellets this summer.”

Eyes on Shell

Ask Bob Schmetzer about the Shell plant, and he will tell you a story about attending the company’s first community meeting in Beaver County in 2012.

Schmetzer is president of the Borough Council of South Heights, Pennsylvania, and a retired electrician who has worked at steel mills and chemical plants in the region for 40 years. He recounts how Shell engineers at the meeting told him the “state of the art” plant they hoped to build in Beaver County would be similar to one the company operates on the Gulf Coast.

“So my question was, ‘Is it flat down there where that plant is?’ ” Flat as a pancake, they told him. He asked if there was a lot of wind. “The wind blows constantly and blows all that stuff out into the Gulf of Mexico” was their answer, Schmetzer says.

He asked them if they’d heard of Donora, Pennsylvania, a town on the Monongahela River southeast of Beaver County. “They looked at each other and said, ‘No, we never heard of Donora.’ I said, ‘Well you should look that up before you design this plant like the state-of-the-art one you have in Texas.’ ”

A man adjusting a monitor on the side of a house. He has a hat.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Mark Dixon services an air monitor at the home of Randy and Tina Shannon in New Brighton, Pennsylvania.

Schmetzer told the Shell engineers about the Donora smog of 1948, when a temperature inversion—a weather effect in which warm air traps a layer of cold air beneath it—held pollution from the steel mills at ground level for 5 days. The smog killed 20 people and caused respiratory problems for 6,000, nearly half the population of the town.


Temperature inversions are not uncommon in river valleys, Schmetzer says. “The towns nearest the plant on the river, Vanport and Beaver, would be sitting ducks if plant emissions were trapped for days,” he says. “I asked how they were going to get that smoke up over the hill when they have start-ups and shutdowns and emergencies.”

The engineers had no response, he says.

Schmetzer, who is also chairman of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community (BCMAC), a group formed in 2011 to inform area residents about the environmental impact of fracking and other industry activity, says communication with Shell has not improved over time. He and others say that despite a series of informational meetings Shell hosted in towns around the plant as construction got underway, the company is unresponsive to community concerns.

“They would give you the impression they were meeting the legal thresholds for air pollution or whatever but never came close to telling you what that pollution means to our health in Beaver County,” says Terrie Baumgardner, Beaver County outreach coordinator at the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based environmental organization, and a board member of BCMAC.

Questions were not taken during presentations, she says. Instead, attendees were invited to speak with Shell staff after the talks at widely dispersed tables so that only a handful of people could hear any individual’s concerns.

Shell debuted biannual online community information presentations last May. Events have featured company managers discussing construction progress, plant operations, COVID-19 measures, and general health and safety issues. Questions are vetted by Shell. Mark Dixon, an environmentalist and documentary filmmaker who logged on to one presentation, objects to Shell’s determining which questions will be aired and answered. “That is a broadcast,” Dixon says. “That is not a public forum.”

BCMAC held its own virtual community meeting, titled “Preparing for Petrochemicals,” in December. Nearly 300 people attended the 2 h event. Clifford Lau, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Duquesne University, led with a detailed description of how the sprawling plant will produce plastics and various by-products. Adam Kron, a senior attorney at EarthJustice, described Shell’s final permitting requirements. Karl Koerner, engineering and technical coordinator at the Clean Air Council, reviewed the plant’s fence-line monitoring system. And Dixon described an effort he coordinates to distribute air pollution monitors to residents of Beaver County.

Dixon, who is also monitoring air in Pittsburgh as part of a documentary he is filming, says a network of low-cost monitors provides communities with a means of holding Shell accountable for commitments to public health and safety. It also provides residents with a real-time air quality map online, he adds. Data from the monitors in the region and others like them are aggregated with data from the DEP and the US Environmental Protection Agency and made available online by Carnegie Mellon.

Dixon’s project is funded by the Direct Support Fund of the Mountain Watershed Association, an environmental organization.

“I don’t trust monitors run by the company that is profiting from the business endeavor,” Dixon says. He points out that Shell had not planned to install fence-line air monitoring until it was forced to do so by a lawsuit brought by the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project in 2015. “The very fact that they didn’t include fence-line monitoring in their original design was a testament to their actual interest in monitoring for the sake of the community,” he says.

BCMAC envisions a broader grassroots campaign to hold Shell to account. Earlier this year, it launched Eyes on Shell, a monthly online event featuring guest speakers such as Jack Sweeney of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a group that helps communities monitor emissions near petrochemical plants, and Michael Blackhurst, a research associate at the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh, who heads a monitoring program to track water pollution from the Shell plant.

Lau encourages attendees to keep and share journals detailing observations of events such as smells or noises that seem out of the ordinary and are likely to have emanated from the Shell plant.

The views upstream

Another community organization, Communities First–Sewickley Valley, was established in 2017 to address health effects of the emerging petrochemical industry in northwest Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

A man sitting at a conference room table holding up a cell phone with a map graphic.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Lew Benson, an air pollution control system consultant in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, demonstrates the air quality map generated from a community air-monitoring network.

“Communities First formed out of a group of people involved in the Women’s March on Washington concerned about what we can do about problems in our country,” says Gail Murray, communications director and one of the founders. “And the cracker plant was a problem in our backyard. We heard about it and were concerned about what it would do to our air, our water, our natural environment, our property values. We wanted to keep our quality of life.”

The group is also concerned about the impact of fracking in western Pennsylvania, the primary source of ethane for the Shell plant. There are fracking well pads within 5 km of Sewickley, which is halfway between Beaver and Pittsburgh along the Ohio River. But group member Doug Krings, an environmental consultant, does not make much of a distinction between the cracker and the fracking wells, given the increased dedication of fracking in southwest Pennsylvania to supplying ethane to the Shell plant.

At a gathering of Communities First members at the library in Sewickley, Krings says the Shell plant is easy for industry opponents to coalesce around, given its size and anticipated level of emissions. On the other hand, the plant is around a bend in the river and not visible from the town, one of the most affluent in the region. “People are probably more aware of fracking than the cracker, and many don’t understand the connection,” Krings says.

Lew Benson, an air pollution controls consultant in town, says he’s heard extremes of opinion for and against the cracker but no outright rift on Main Street. “People are busy with their lives,” he says.

Residents of Sewickley and surrounding communities are, however, highly motivatedwhen it comes to protecting water sources, including the Ambridge Reservoir, near which Shell’s pipeline division has constructed the Falcon Pipeline, which feeds ethane to the plant. Most recently, residents have worked to protect Big Sewickley Creek, a trout-stocked recreational waterway and habitat for the southern redbelly dace, a threatened fish species.

Last fall, local residents and politicians got the state to deny a permit to PennEnergy Resources that would have allowed it to daily pump more than 7 million L of water from the creek and another 4 million L from its north fork for fracking sites in nearby Economy, Pennsylvania. PennEnergy has reapplied for its permit, and the battle is ongoing.

Meanwhile, Communities First members are installing the same kind of air monitors that residents are setting up in Beaver County. Benson, who purchased two, says he was skeptical of the monitoring plan at first.

“I, being an engineer, thought that was never going to work,” he says. “No one was going to take readings from these $200 monitors seriously. I was entirely wrong about that.” He notes that earlier this year, the EPA offered grants for the use of ambient air pollution monitors.

Dixon, Communities First, BCMAC, and other groups in Beaver County applied for the EPA grant through a partnership with the Breathe Project.

Just about there

The big plant in Potter Township is poised for start-up. Construction by Shell’s contractor, Bechtel, is 95% complete, says Bill Watson, the cracker’s general manager. Utilities and the water system are up and running, as is a 250 MW cogeneration plant. The construction workforce, which last year numbered 8,500, is down to 4,200, Watson says. The cost was initially estimated at $6 billion, and the company has not provided an update.

“What we have been saying for some time,” says Hilary Mercer, the Shell senior vice president in charge of the project, “is it will start in the summer of this year.” She cautions, however, that unexpected delays are common in starting up such a large operation. “Until I’ve seen every last one of the big pieces of equipment running, I am always hesitant to give any more details.” The impact of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine on the supply chain have added to the uncertainty, she says.

A plastics plant nearing the end of construction on the Ohio River in Pennsylvania.
Credit: Julie Dermansky
Construction is winding down at the Shell site. Start-up is anticipated sometime this summer.

Mercer acknowledges headwinds that have increased in the years the plant has been under construction. Polyethylene prices have fluctuated and demand forecasts have dropped since 2012, partly because of pressure to minimize single-use plastics. A project in Ohio by PTT Global Chemical, the only other company to select a site for an ethylene cracker in the region, is on indefinite hold.


“I still think this is a very attractive project,” Mercer says, “and if you talk to our customers, I think they are all extremely excited about the expected start of the plant this year.” Proximity to major markets remains an advantage to producing plastics in the region, she says. And the company’s commitment to plastics recycling, along with the regional carbon-capture alliance, will mitigate the environmental impact of the plant and its products.

Discussing nearby residents’ concerns, Watson says the possibility of temperature inversions in a river valley was taken into consideration in plant design. Kimberly Kaal, the plant’s environmental manager, explains that permitting required stringent modeling of emissions under pertinent atmospheric conditions.

Watson and Kaal add that most deadly air inversions have trapped sulfur dioxide, which is not a significant emission from the plant. “We have to use ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel and natural gas in order to comply,” Kaal says.

Permissible air emissions from the Shell cracker
A chart citing emissions limits.
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Air Quality Plan Approval Modification 04-00740C, February 2021.

Regarding fence-line monitoring, Kaal says there is no regulatory requirement for Shell to have included such a system in its initial plant design. “EPA requires refineries to implement a fence-line monitoring program, not chemical plants,” she says. While the settlement in the lawsuit brought by Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project requires Shell to begin monitoring at the fence once the plant begins operations, the system is already up and running, she adds.

“Shell wants to be a good neighbor,” Kaal says. “We took this decision to start the fence-line monitoring program early and to also post the data on our website. We are under no obligation to do that.”

Mercer objects to the notion that the company had an overriding obligation to the community to include fence-line monitoring in the initial design. “I don’t think that’s reasonable,” she says. “We have monitoring. We monitor much closer to the actual facilities themselves.”

Kaal explains that the plant was designed to have continuous monitoring of all emissions at the source. “We also have an additional program to sample and test every one of our stacks, vents, and thermal oxidizers on-site,” she says. “And finally, we have a leak detection and repair program which is one of the most restrictive in the nation.”

President Donald Trump stands with five people at an industrial construction site.
Credit: Associated Press
Hilary Mercer (center), senior vice president of Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals, led President Donald J. Trump and others on a tour of the Shell plant when it was under construction in 2019. From left: Rick Perry, secretary of energy at the time; Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell USA; Mercer; Andrew Wheeler, then administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency; Charles Holliday, then chairman of the board of Shell; and Trump.

The company has placed no air monitors beyond the fence line in the communities surrounding the plant. Kaal notes that the DEP maintains several monitors in Beaver County. Dixon has set up monitors at 17 sites in the county so far, each measuring total volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter. He says he could not find VOC readings on the DEP’s website. “I don’t know where to find it and am not sure why they don’t have it integrated into their standard reporting pages,” he says.

Shell has had two notable releases of chemicals since September—the maple syrup odor and a spill of about 7,500 L of sulfuric acid, which was contained on-site, on March 19. In the latter instance, Shell reported the spill to the DEP as well as the National Response Center and the Local Emergency Planning Committee before it determined whether it had released a reportable quantity. The company later determined it had not spilled enough to require reporting to DEP or other authorities.

“Can we be clear,” Mercer says. “We report to fulfill our reporting requirement even if we believe the amount that has been spilled and contained would not necessarily require us to do so.”

Shell, however, didn’t communicate information about the spill directly to the community. It posted nothing about the event on the plant’s website or on the Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals Facebook page, on which there are no posts between March 18 and April 14.

Curtis Thomas, Shell’s corporate relations manager, says the plant’s community advisory panel (CAP), established in the fall, discusses events such as the sodium tolyltriazole and sulfuric acid releases. The 20-member panel, which includes local government representatives, environmentalists, “and some moms and dads from the community,” meets in closed sessions. Thomas says Shell does not have permission to release names of members.

Regarding the cracker

At the edge of a scenic overlook behind the Beaver Valley Mall in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Lau, the professor, takes in a river valley landscape now dominated by Shell’s expansive plant and a 38-track rail yard. He points out the facility’s seven ethane cracking furnaces, the polymerization unit, the cogeneration plant, the quenching tower, and the formidable transportation infrastructure—including several rail areas and over 32 km of rail line.

A man standing with a rake in front of his house.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
John Coffield, a retired aviation manager in Monaca, Pennsylvania, expresses confidence in Shell's emission control systems. "The chemical plant doesn't bother me," he says.

Lau says the most immediate impact on the community will likely be light and sound pollution. “People seem to be interested in that,” he says. “It’s hard to get them interested in hazardous air pollutants that might kill them later on, but the noise and light are going to disrupt their sleep.”

Residents of a new housing development that runs up to the overlook are not overly concerned about how the plant will affect their day-to-day lives. One of them, Terry Lee, is the process engineering manager at the Shell facility. His home is near the end of the street.

“I don’t expect to be impacted at all, to be quite honest,” says Lee, who has worked for Shell for 35 years and also has a residence in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He adds that several plant employees live in the neighborhood. “My understanding about this site is that a lot of measures have been taken to be a responsible member of the community, and I think Shell takes that seriously.”

Lee’s neighbor, Dominick Treemarchi, lives in the last house on the street. His side window looks directly down on the rail yard and plant, which is beginning to light the riverfront as a dramatic red sunset fades. He says he loves the view and is all for the plant.

A man looks back from a precipice, where he stands before a prospect of a large plastics manufactuirng plant.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Clifford Lau, an adjunct chemistry professor at Duquesne University, is the chemistry expert for the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community. He is standing at a prospect in Monaca, Pennsylvania, that offers a panoramic view of Shell’s cracker.

“It’s the one thing that attracted me to Beaver County,” says Treemarchi, a retiree who has worked in local industry. “This place in the near future is going to bring economic value to the region.”

Treemarchi shrugs off environmental concerns. “I’m 70. I’m not going to worry about the environmental impact,” he says. “I don’t know how many years I have left.”

Many residents across the region express similar enthusiasm for the cracker. “The chemical plant doesn’t bother me,” says John Coffield, who lives in a hilly neighborhood in Monaca out of view of the cracker. “Economically, I don’t know how many people will be employed there, but it’s something we haven’t had for a long time.”

As for environmental impact, “I don’t know if it will have any,” says Coffield, a retired aviation manager, citing the control technology Shell says it has employed.

David Rowe, a retiree in Freedom, Pennsylvania, just upstream from Beaver, looks to Shell’s venture for a much-needed economic uplift. “Freedom was known as the armpit of Beaver County because there was an oil works down the street,” he says. “But now it’s gone. The steel mills are gone. It’s all gone. But also our families left. I had to leave when I was young because there was no work here.”

The steel from the steel mills not only helped win World War II but built everything from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge. And everything in between.
Jack Manning, commissioner, Beaver County

The plant, he says, means jobs for Beaver County. “They gotta have some place to work,” he says, pointing to children playing in the neighborhood.

His neighbor, Sue Stimmell, agrees. “I think it’s good because it brings people to the neighborhood,” she says. “It’s good for the economy. My son works there with some kind of heavy machinery.” It is a union job, she says, adding that she doesn’t know how much longer he will be employed at the site.

In Vanport, a small town between the Shell plant and Beaver, Charles Rubino says Shell has disrupted little of life other than adding to the traffic on the main roads. “It’s actually died down now that the project is about done.”


As for the impact of the plant once it starts up, “I can’t believe this would be any worse than all the mills that have been in the area for how many years,” says Rubino, a rail signal maintainer who was once employed at the zinc works in Potter Township. “And I don’t know that I would be so bothered by them still being here. I mean, it’s kind of the family I grew up with. My grandfather worked in a mill.”

Tim Robinson, who is an assistant vice president at a bank and lives in Potter Township, says that other than the traffic and dirt associated with construction, the plant has not been an intrusion on its hometown as of yet. “It’s not up and running, so I don’t know what kind of noise will come out of it or what emissions it’s going to be giving off,” he says as he rounds up his two scampering Shetland sheepdogs. “They say it’s all going to be up to regulations.”

Lonely voices

Rachael Sauro is working on a laptop at a bustling Starbucks in Beaver late in the afternoon. A nurse working as an educator for a health-care insurer, Sauro is concerned about the departure of construction workers who were spending money in the region. “What will be the impact when all these people go away?”

A man standing on his porch in a sunny neighborhood in Freedom, Pennsylvania.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Matt Hogue, a resident of Freedom, Pennsylvania, views any potential economic gains to his neighborhood from the Shell plant as difficult to justify, considering the environmental and health costs.

Sauro, who has lived in Beaver for 15 years, wonders if a downturn in the real estate market is ahead. “Property values have gone up,” she says. “Is it going to make the value of my property go down when all these people leave? That’s a big concern for me because I don’t plan to live here forever.”

Sauro says she also worries about the health impact of the plant, noting that the region already has a legacy of illness resulting from years of exposure to pollution from heavy industry.

Matt Hogue, who is a contract manager for a trucking company and lives in Freedom, is also worried about the health impact. He recalls the fanfare heralding an economic boom when Shell came to town, a boom he says has amounted so far to a real estate build-out and high rents in an economically depressed region.

For Hogue, who hosts air monitors in Dixon’s network, economic gains would be difficult to justify given the environmental burden of an ethylene cracker. “Money can’t buy your health,” he says.

Hogue says Shell did not hold information events in Freedom like it did in Vanport, Potter Township, and other towns closer to the plant. The community, he says, is not well informed. “And I think Shell likes it like that.”

A couple with a small child at a table on a small patio that overlooks a wooded ravine.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Matt Stewart and Jackie Shock-Stewart with their daughter at their home in Brighton Township, Pennsylvania. The two say they are considering moving from the area because of concerns over the Shell plant's health and environmental impacts.

Matt Stewart and Jackie Shock-Stewart, who are also hosting monitors provided by Dixon, share Hogue’s distrust of communication from a large corporation like Shell. They are aware of the company’s recent online events but have not logged on or watched recordings.

Shock-Stewart, a clinical social worker, sent an email after an interview in the family’s backyard, which overlooks a wooded ravine on a slope toward the river. In it she justifies ignoring the Shell meetings. It reads, in part: “Shell is a huge corporation with deep pockets and any number of PR agents at their disposal to spin the plant as a benevolent, safe force in the community. . . . They have every opportunity to anticipate any question, criticism, or doubt and figure out how to spin an answer to reflect their best interest.”

“I’m kind of realizing that we are, sadly, in the minority,” Stewart says. “There are a lot of people who are continuing to buy the narrative that betting our future on the petrochemicals industry is good.”

Stewart and Shock-Stewart, who have three small children, say they are seriously considering moving. “We might leave the region entirely,” Stewart says. “At the very least, we’d want to move further from the plant.”

The sacrifice zone

Sunset over the Ohio River as viewed from Monaca, Pennsylvania.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Sunset over the Ohio River as viewed from Monaca, Pennsylvania

Denise Poole and her husband moved into their “dream home,” a 100-year-old house on 2nd Street in Beaver, in 2014. Poole liked living one block from the river. An avid gardener, she also loved the fenced-in yard. “And we loved Beaver. It was this nice little town. It’s flat, which for the Pittsburgh area is a big deal. You could walk to the grocery store.” She and her husband, an airline pilot, expected to live there forever, she says.

When the couple got wind of the Shell project, Poole says she began asking neighbors what they thought about it. “Everybody’s big thing was, ‘Well, we made it through the zinc plant.’ Meaning they survived the zinc plant and now they’re willing to do something else? I couldn’t find anyone all that concerned about it.”

Very concerned, the Pooles sold the house in Beaver in 2017 and moved to Oakmont, a small suburb northeast of Pittsburgh.

The region is not on the cusp of an exodus. Beaver County home prices in April were 8.9% higher than they were a year ago, according to the real estate website Rocket Homes. But some people concerned about the plant are leaving.

Last July, Christy Begley and her husband sold their house in Center Township, which borders the plant, and moved to Clinton, a 15 min drive over the county line in Allegheny County. The new home is the first she’s lived in outside Beaver County.

“We were in what’s known as the sacrifice zone,” she says, a term popularized by BCMAC for an area in a 1 mi (1.6 km) radius of the plant. “The only reason we left that house was because of the cracker.”

Begley says her main concerns were pollution and the possibility of accidents and emergencies at the plant. “Additionally, it looked like the sun was coming up from over the hill in the middle of the night.”

Valerie Kennedy, a retired English teacher, recently purchased a house in Patterson Township, about 10 km north of Beaver and out of the river valley. She will likely sell her home in Beaver, she says. The plant is a primary reason for her move. “I don’t want to be here and smell that cracker plant,” Kennedy says. “Or hear those sounds.”

I’m kind of realizing that we are, sadly, in the minority. There are a lot of people who are continuing to buy the narrative that betting our future on the petrochemicals industry is good.
Matt Stewart, resident, Brighton Township

Kennedy says she’s struggled to get a conversation going about what’s ahead for Beaver. “I’ve posted articles and videos about the plant on Facebook,” she says. “My Facebook friends never comment. If I post a stupid picture of my dog, I’ll get 25 comments. I’ve incriminated myself many times! But for me it’s important that I get some information out there.”

And there are those living near the plant who are concerned about it but lack the resources to move, Begley says. Baumgardner of the Clean Air Council adds that many people have family responsibilities that tie them to the area. Indeed, one resident of Beaver, who asked to remain anonymous, tells C&EN that if he weren’t responsible for caring for his mother, he’d already be gone.

Baumgardner, too, says she plans to leave her home in Aliquippa to distance herself from the plant. “I am very close to renting out my home to move down to Pittsburgh,” she says. “It’s happening. I am making arrangements now.”


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