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Shell expected to face lawsuit over air pollution violations at Beaver County ethane cracker

Company reported excess pollution of smog-forming chemicals and visible emissions

  • Reid Frazier
Shell ethane cracker in Monaca, Pa. March 2022.

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Shell ethane cracker in Monaca, Pa. March 2022.

Pa. Department of Environmental Protection

Yellow plumes show visible emissions from Shell’s ethane cracker in September 2022. The emissions are coming from the plant’s “ground enclosed flares.”

Two environmental groups say they intend to sue Shell over dozens of air pollution violations at the company’s new plastics plant near Pittsburgh. 

The plant began ramping up activities in the fall. In those months, it self-reported several air quality violations. 

The Environmental Integrity Project and Clean Air Council sent a notice of intent to sue Thursday to get the company to comply with state and federal air rules. The notice is a legally-required first step to sue a company under the Clean Air Act. 

“We’re taking this action because we want to stop this illegal pollution and to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” said Sarah Kula, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “This facility has just come online only recently in the last few months of 2022, and we’re already seeing really severe violations of the permit that applies to the facility.” 

The groups based their claims on company-reported data showing the plant exceeded allowable limits of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. 

In December, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation against the company for exceeding its pollution limits. Shell said that pollution was a result of flaring while it attempted to begin operations at the plant, which makes plastic pellets out of ethane, a component of natural gas.

Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County has been approved to emit 2,248,293 tons of CO2e per year.But Kula said the state’s action didn’t go far enough. 

“It doesn’t impose any penalties. It’s not a final enforcement action. It’s not sufficient to address the issue,” she said. 

Under the Clean Air Act, citizen groups can sue polluters for exceeding air pollution limits, and courts can impose restrictions on polluters to make sure they comply. 

A spokesman for the DEP said the agency wouldn’t comment on litigation.  

Shell’s pollution limits

Under the terms of its state air permit, the plant is allowed to emit 516 tons of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, over any 12-month period. In September alone, it reported emitting 512 tons of VOCs, almost a year’s worth of pollution, according to Shell data presented in the notice. The plant also reported exceeding permitted levels of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, the notice said. 

VOCs and nitrogen oxides are precursors to smog, or ground-level ozone, which can aggravate lung diseases like asthma and emphysema. Nitrogen oxides are also lung irritants that can contribute to asthma. Exposure to carbon monoxide at high enough levels can lead to fatigue, headaches and dizziness.

Kula said the plant also violated the terms of its permit by allowing visible emissions during flaring, or the burning of excess chemicals at the plant. She said residents reported seeing plumes of black smoke coming out of the facility, particularly in September while Shell was ramping up operations. But she says the flaring has continued past the plant’s startup. 

“Residents are reporting more recently that they have been seeing flaring at the facility late in December and early in January,” she said. “And these are big, high-level flares, very high into the sky and often with big plumes of black smoke.”

Shell received a $1.65 billion Pennsylvania tax credit, the largest in state history, to build the plant. 

A company spokesman said Shell had no comment “as we are reviewing the notice.” An EPA spokesman said the agency was reviewing the notice as well. 

The groups have 60 days to file their lawsuit with a federal court in Pittsburgh. 

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