It's enough to make you sick
When the cameras aren't rolling, the pollution keeps coming
As news crews continue to swarm East Palestine, Ohio in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern disastrous derailment that released hazardous chemicals into the air, water and soil five weeks ago, another - less visible - environmental threat has been unfolding for months about 20 miles away near the small community of Monaca, Pennsylvania.
The perpetrating polluter there is Shell and its new 386-acre plastics production plant, which Shell proudly proclaims as the “first major polyethylene manufacturing complex in the Northeastern United States” with a designed output of 1.6 million tonnes annually. The plant uses a process called “cracking” to convert natural gas liquid ethane into the petrochemical ethylene, a building block for plastic production.
Shell, which made a record profit of nearly $40 billion in 2022, started operations late last year and says it expects to ramp up to full production by the second half of 2023. A company official was quoted in November expressing pride for Shell’s decision to become “invested in the community through employment and education” and to “repair and improve the local environment by remediating a brownfield site.”
But in just its first few months of production, problems have quickly become apparent as Shell has regularly pumped far more pollutants into the air than it is legally allowed to emit.
As reported in The New Lede, in its first 100 days the plant submitted at least seven malfunction reports to state regulators and received multiple notices of permit violations from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The plant’s illegally high emissions include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Exposure to VOCs and NOx can contribute to respiratory illnesses and other health problems, and exposures to very high levels of VOCs are linked to central nervous system problems, liver and kidney problems, and some types of cancer. The pollutants also worsen smog.
Things went wrong from the start: On the day the facility opened, it recorded excess emissions that included 721 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and approximately 2 tons of VOCs, according to the company’s malfunction report submitted a month later.
Advocacy groups have threatened lawsuits and are demanding regulators shut the plant down, at least temporarily.
“Shell’s illegal pollution… and atrocious disregard for environmental regulations in just its first 100 days of operations pose an unacceptable risk to workers and communities living near the petrochemical complex,” Anais Peterson, petrochemical campaigner at the community advocacy group Earthworks, said in a statement.
Pennsylvania regulators have had little to say about Shell’s illegal emissions, though they have been quite vocal about the Norfolk Southern derailment and the related air and water quality concerns connected to that accident. They, along with Ohio regulators and federal officials, have demanded massive clean-up actions by Norfolk Southern and publicly condemned the railroad for the actions that led to the derailment and resulting chemical contamination.
Pennsylvania Acting DEP Secretary Rich Negrin reassured community members that the department has been taking independent samples of drinking water near the train derailment site and was working to “assure Pennsylvanians their air, water, and environment are safe.”
As far as the Shell plant goes, though, there has been little outrage expressed by the state regulators. The DEP announce in December that it was "actively investigating these violations” and may take “enforcement actions as appropriate to compel compliance, require corrective actions, and assess civil penalties." In mid-February, the DEP issued another notice of violation.
Monaca is just a tiny community of roughly 5,600 people situated along the Ohio River, 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The residents there have a median household income of just under $40,000 and lack the political clout needed to take on a global corporation such as Shell. And so they continue to breathe in Shell’s pollutants.
The situation reminds me of the numerous citizen complaints and regulatory slaps on the wrist that occurred for years in the tiny rural town of Mead, Nebraska before media attention finally forced state officials to close a polluting plant there.
It shouldn’t take news crews with cameras for regulators to crack down on corporate wrong-doers who put public health at risk. But clearly, it does. It’s enough to make us all sick.