Shell’s cracker plant exceeded annual emissions limits even before it was fully operational

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CP Photo: Jared Wickerham

In the 12 months leading up to November, production at a Shell cracker in Beaver County produced more than the annual amount of emissions. After several years of construction, the plastic plant began full operation on November 15.

Shell’s Beaver County cracker plant already exceeded annual emissions limits a year before it was fully operational in November.

Although the plastic plant is allowed to produce 516 tons of VOCs for the year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that 663 tons were released in the 12 months ending in October.

“DEP is actively investigating these violations and receiving additional information, data and reports from Shell and may take additional enforcement actions to enforce compliance, require corrective action and assess civil penalties,” the agency said in a news release.

A large petrochemical plant in Potter Township, Beaver County, has been under construction for several years and reported that the first day of full-time work November 15. Before the official start-up, the plant underwent tests and worked at limited capacity, which contributed to the production of 663 tons threw out

The plant can produce up to 3.5 billion pounds of polyethylene by heating and distilling liquid fuel.

While Shell touted the giant complex as a necessary injection of cash and jobs, local environmentalists consistently warned about its harmful potential.

Mark Dixon, a local filmmaker and environmental advocate, says the latest breach report confirms their concerns.

“It’s disturbing to watch this predictable tragedy unfold in such a beautiful area,” says Dixon Pittsburgh City Paper. “Shell’s plant is barely operational and they’ve already received DEP violations for air emissions, bad odor and now VOC emissions. If Shell wants community support, this is not the way to do it. Every violation is a betrayal of trust.”

The EPA labels more than 100 chemicals as Volatile organic compounds, most of which are formed as a result of industrial processes. Many of them are harmful to human health and the environment, such as benzene and methane.

Shell’s permit indicates that the Beaver County plant is a “major source of air pollution for ozone precursors (nitrogen oxides (NOx) and VOCs), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5 ), hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), and carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e),” according to the DEP.

Clifford Lau, a chemical engineer who also serves as a local air quality advocate, says this mix of compounds will lead to high levels of ozone emissions, a key driver of climate change and a threat to human health.

“Ozone is a very strong respiratory irritant and can also cause cardiovascular disease,” says Lau City newspaper.

In a statement, Shell said the high emissions reflected the fine-tuning procedures required to bring the plant to full operation.

“Several factors contributed to the additional flaring during the start-up, all related to the complexity of commissioning completely new systems and equipment that make up one of the largest construction projects in the country,” Shell said. CP in the statement. “We will continue to report transparently and comply with all regulations, and apply lessons learned and best practices to ensure that our operations do not have a negative impact on people and the environment.”

Looking ahead, Lau says, the needle could potentially move in either direction.

“You could argue that they’re overcapacity because they’re having trouble getting the plant up and running,” says Lau. CP. “On the other hand, the plant was not working at full capacity. If you run all six crackers, you can see even more tons of emissions … and there’s no reason to believe that they might not have hiccups even when they’re running at full capacity.”

The DEP has yet to issue fines in response to the violation and required the company to submit a “root cause analysis” and mitigation plan within 45 days.

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