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Shell to pay $10 million for permit violations at new cracker

Ethylene plant in western Pennsylvania exceeded limits on a range of pollutants

by Rick Mullin
June 1, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 18

A large petrochemical plant on the Ohio River in Pennsylvania.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
The Shell plant has exceeded air permit limits for volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants.

Shell will pay nearly $10 million to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and communities in western Pennsylvania for repeated air permit violation at its multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Under a consent order and agreement with the office of Governor Josh Shapiro and the DEP, Shell will pay a civil penalty of $4.9 million, a portion of which will be paid to local communities. Shell will spend an additional $5 million for environmental projects to benefit those communities. In all, $6.2 million will go to communities surrounding the plant.

According to the DEP, the plant, which started operations in November, exceeded emission limits in recent months for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hazardous air pollutants. The DEP also cited Shell for flaring violations, malodor violations at its wastewater treatment plant, and other violations.

According to the consent agreement, Shell will pay monthly civil penalties for the rest of the year for any further exceedances. The penalty is one of the largest issued by the DEP, according to a department spokesperson.

“We know that Shell can operate a state-of-the-art facility that helps grow our economy without harming the environment, and we are going to hold them to the requirements laid out in their permits,” Richard Negrin, acting DEP secretary, says in a statement.

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a coalition of community and environmental groups in western Pennsylvania, says the consent agreement is the first significant indicator that Shell has, despite assurances, not been able to bring the new plant under control. He is critical, however, of the arrangement under which Shell can make further payments for emissions violations through the end of the year.

“Putting in a blanket statement on how much [Shell] can pay for the next five months almost sends a signal that it’s okay for them to not abide by their permit,” Mehalik says.

Residents of the small towns surrounding the plant have complained of smells and excessive flaring since it began operation. They pointed to an orange glow in the sky over the region at that time and, more recently, a blue haze near the plant.

Clifford Lau, a chemist and board member of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, says he detected VOC levels of about 200 parts per billion in the town of Beaver on April 12 following a malfunction of the plant’s wastewater treatment system. “Under normal operations downwind of the plant, we usually read 20 to 40 parts per billion,” Lau says. “It should be zero.”

VOC levels in the area of the reported blue haze were about 100 parts per billion, Lau says.

Critics of the plant say they are concerned that the DEP’s penalty will not be an effective deterrent for future emissions violations. “A $10 million penalty sounds like a lot of money,” says Mehalik, “but it is something a company like Shell can pay as part of the cost of doing business.” He notes that Shell received a $1.6 billion tax break from the state of Pennsylvania.

In May, the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project, two environmental groups, filed a lawsuit against Shell for repeated permit violations at the plant.

The plant has been shut down for repairs and maintenance since March and was expected to restart late in May. “We’ve learned from previous issues and remain committed to protecting people and the environment, as well as being a responsible neighbor,” Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesperson, says in a statement released after the consent agreement.


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