Note: This story is from The Allegheny Front, a public radio program covering environmental issues in Western Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) heard from the public Tuesday on the impacts Shell’s proposed ethane cracker in Western Pennsylvania would have on air quality and the local economy.
Before a crowd of more than 100 residents, activists, and officials at Central Valley High School in Monaca, agency and company officials took questions from the public on the proposed petrochemical plant.
Residents asked about prevailing winds, potential odors, health impacts, and whether the plant would use union labor. The meeting was part of the public comment period for a DEP air quality permit Shell has applied for. The DEP has given notice it intends to approve the permit.
Jeff Krafve, Shell’s project general manager assured the crowd the facility would be safe. “We’re using the best technology we have in 2015 to have the lowest emissions we possibly can have,” said Krafve. “Stuff happens in our industry. Things break, we can have leaks. We will have the best, most sensitive detection technology to identify those leaks and have procedures to correct them.”
In 2012, Shell announced that it was considering a site at the former Horseheads zinc plant in Potter Township, Beaver County, for an ethane cracker. The plant would use natural gas from the region to make plastics, and would be eligible for up to $1.65 billion in tax credits from the state. The company has taken steps to move the project along, but has not announced a final decision.
One hurdle the company faces in building the plant is Pittsburgh’s poor air quality. Since the area does not meet EPA clean air standards for particle pollution or ground level ozone, the company must demonstrate that its plant would not make the region’s air worse.
As a result, Shell will have to purchase air pollution reduction credits from other facilities in the region, said Mark Gorog of DEP’s bureau of air quality. Gorog said Shell would have to purchase credits for more pollution than it produces to meet its permit requirements. The plant will also have to use best available pollution control technologies.
Still, the plant’s air impacts worry environmental groups. Air pollution from a cracker can include nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, all of which are regulated by the Clean Air Act.
Ethane crackers have the potential to emit large amounts of ethylene, propylene, and other so-called ‘highly reactive volatile organic compounds’.
These are chemical compounds that can react quickly in sunlight to form ground-level ozone, or smog.
“It’s going to have a huge impact on air quality and quality of life on the community that’s going to host it. There’s no way you can get around it–it’s just so large,” said Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, which produced a health impact study of the cracker.
The plant will per permitted to release 30.5 tons of hazardous air pollutants, as well as hundreds of tons of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, according to the DEP. The plant will be permitted to emit 2.248 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (C02e).
The main sources of pollution would come from seven gas-fired furnaces, that ‘crack’ ethane—a gas found in abundance in the ‘wet gas’ areas of southwestern Pennsylvania—and convert it into ethylene, a building block for plastics.
In a word, jobs
Even with the anticipated emissions, a stream of local officials stepped to the podium to endorse the plan.
“I can assure the vast majority of residents want to see a cracker plant in operation,” said Dennis Nichols, a Beaver County commissioner. “We all want clean water and clean air. But we want these things in the context of good-paying jobs and an economic future for our region.”
Representatives from business groups and organized labor also spoke on the project’s behalf.
“I’ve built steel mills (in Beaver County) and I’ve tore them all down, and haven’t seen anything (built) in the last so many years other than power plants,” said Mike McDonald, president of Beaver County Building Trades. “I think it’s a great opportunity.”
The public comment period for the air quality permit ends May 15.