Residents and environmental advocates frustrated with repeated violations at the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County are asking their local officials to take a more active role in monitoring and regulating the facility.
A crowd of citizens packed the tight county boardroom yesterday morning to put their concerns directly to the three-member board. They also handed over multiple petitions, which they said collectively represent nearly 70,000 people concerned by the petrochemical operations.
Andie Grey, an Aliquippa resident with watchdog group Eyes on Shell, leveled six demands at the commissioners, including calls for a county-wide notification system for reporting pollution events, pushing the state to increase oversight of the facility, and hosting a town hall where community members can dialogue with relevant stakeholders about their concerns.
“We, as residents, expect better notification, expect better communication, and we're asking you to participate in that so that it can happen,” Grey said.
Since going fully operational in the fall of 2022, the facility has repeatedly blown through emissions limitations set by the DEP and was subsequently fined $10 million last month. The massive plant transforms petrochemicals into tiny pellets used for manufacturing a variety of plastic products.
For their part, commissioners said they sympathized with the citizens’ concerns, but stressed the limits of their jurisdiction.
“We are happy to have you here to hear your concerns regarding your issues, but this Board of Commissioners has no oversight over any air, water, or any zoning issues that you may have with the Shell owners of the cracker plant, but we are happy to hear your thoughts and your concerns of our residents here in Beaver County,” said Chairman Daniel Camp III.
Some in the crowd argued this was shirking responsibilities.
“Just listening to this group of people — citizens, taxpayers — here pleading out for help, I just see too many public officials say ‘well that's not my job.’ So you’re running around the mulberry bush until your tongue hangs out and you get nothing done,” said Bob Schmetzer of South Heights.
“I don’t know what we’re doing, but I think we can do a better job”
The commissioners later indicated they would consider participating in the town hall and stressed that they would like to receive better information about emissions. But they remained cautious about promising more.
“We expressed [to Shell] that you aren't a good neighbor now,” Camp said. “We've expressed it to them — how high it goes up their chain of command we don't know. So we could work on those commitments that you're asking us to but it's ultimately not going to come from the Board of Commissioners.”
Beaver County, unlike Allegheny, does not maintain its own health department, so environmental regulations are administered directly by the Department of Environmental Protection. The department permits the plant to emit 516 tons of volatile organic compounds — a broad range of chemical emissions, some of which are harmful to human health and the environment — in a rolling 12-month period and also sets specific limits on harmful compounds like carbon monoxide and nitric oxide. The fines issues last month reflect multiple violations across different emissions categories.
The company has attributed much of this to malfunctions that will be weeded out over time as it continues to test and tune its operation.
But environmental advocates remain skeptical and argue the cost was unsubstantial in comparison to the company’s profit margins and the harm wrought on the community.
Before the commissioners meeting, protestors assembled in Irvine Park across the main street from the county courthouse in Beaver Township.
Many expressed feelings of hopelessness in the face of a petrochemical industry that poses daily concerns in the form of the cracker plant but also yielded a massive toxic explosion in the aftermath of a train derailment earlier this year in Ohio, less than a mile from the county line.
“We are now mourning the loss of these things due to petrochemicals — petrochemicals of the malfunctioning cracker plant and its infrastructure, and the petrochemicals from that Norfolk Southern train,” said Rachel Meyer, a Beaver County resident with Moms Clean Air Force.
“This is all one big out of control train that's got to be stopped.”