Behind the Scenes: How a Plastics Plant Has Plagued a Pennsylvania County

From incessant noise to noxious odors, the Shell plastics plant has deeply impacted the residents of a western Pennsylvania county.

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The Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County was fined $10 million for air quality violations in May 2023. Credit: Mark Dixon/CC BY 2.0 Deed
The Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County was fined $10 million for air quality violations in May 2023. Credit: Mark Dixon/CC BY 2.0 Deed

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In 2022, the oil and gas company Shell began operations at its new plastics plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania, a town in Beaver County, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

The ethane cracker plant was set to produce millions of tons of plastic at its site along the Ohio River and promised to bring money and jobs to Beaver County, a charming area where Hallmark has filmed exterior shots to represent the idyllic towns often seen in its Christmas classics. 

But plastic isn’t the only thing this facility produces: Over the past few years, noxious chemicals, incessant noise and flashing lights in the middle of the night have plagued residents. 

Advocacy groups and locals have filed lawsuits against Shell over these disruptions, and some decided to flee the county altogether. Researchers fear the long-term climate, health and environmental impacts of the petrochemical facility, which emits methane and millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. 

My colleague Kiley Bense (yes, we are both named Kiley, and we are both from Pennsylvania) has reported extensively on this issue; she visited and reported on the plant when it was still being built in 2022. Recently, Kiley checked in with some of the people in Beaver County about their experiences with the plant, which you can read about in a piece she published earlier this week. I asked Kiley to tell me more about how she has followed this story and what she learned while reporting. 

How did you learn about this situation?

In 2022, I visited the Shell plant while it was still under construction. On a sweltering spring day, I stood on an overlook near a new townhouse development and a cancer healthcare center to get a better view of the Shell site, which covers hundreds of acres along the Ohio River. Back then, most people living near the plant were not worried about what would happen once the facility began operations. 

But there were a few residents and environmental advocates who were concerned about its potential impacts on the environment and public health. Now that the Shell plant has been online for more than a year, I wanted to investigate whether any of those fears had come to pass. I also wanted to examine a larger question: What will Shell’s presence mean for this part of western Pennsylvania in the long-term?

How did you report the story?

Because I had reported on the Shell plant before, I decided to re-interview some of my sources from the first story, to see if their perspectives had changed since 2022. I also wanted to talk to residents living close to the plant so that I could understand what that experience was like and how and whether the plant had impacted their daily lives. I found that for many of them the plant’s light, noise and air pollution had affected their sleep, quality of life and peace of mind. 

The other aspect of the reporting was to review documents and records related to the Shell plant’s planning and operation, from research studies to lawsuits, violation notices and malfunction reports. 

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the story that you can share? 

One thing that didn’t make it into my story are the many resonances between the complaints I was hearing from Pennsylvanians living near the Beaver County Shell plant and Texans living near Shell’s Deer Park Chemicals site. 

Environmental justice activists with the Houston-based Fenceline Watch told me they also struggled to get real-time information from Shell about what was happening at the site. That includes during emergencies, which is something that those monitoring the Pennsylvania plant closely are worried could happen there, too. 

Another thing I came across are the Google reviews of Shell Polymers Monaca, which have become a forum for residents to air their grievances about the plant. While some people offered support for the plant, most of the reviews were negative, and they echoed what I was hearing from the residents I interviewed. 

“Maybe just turn the lights down. You don’t have to be seen from space,” one reviewer wrote. “I’m not going to harp on about the environment, but this place is more of a nuisance and an eyesore than anything.” 

Another reviewer also complained about the light pollution and brought up the possibility of moving away: “Hasn’t been dark at my house since they started building, never will be again. Buses clogged and tore up our roads for years and it was never fixed. We’re talking about moving, such a shame.”

What happens next? What should people keep an eye on? 

In February, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter to Shell reminding the company that it must submit an application for its Title V operating permit within 120 days of receipt of the letter. 

Title V permits are issued under the Clean Air Act and govern the facility’s obligations for controlling its air pollution. Environmentalists in the region are hoping that DEP will open the process to public comment so that residents will be able to weigh in about the limits being set by the new permit. 

For the residents of Beaver County, especially those living close to the plant, the stakes of this bureaucratic process—and how well the permit will eventually be enforced—are high.

More Top Climate News

Last week, I wrote about how climate change is infiltrating game night. This week, a new study revealed that it is also creeping into parts of the movie world, reports Bloomberg

Climate themes have increased on screen overall since 2013, but in some cases, “popular films’ climate avoidance perpetuates the socially organized denial of the crisis,” according to the study from Colby College and nonprofit consulting firm Good Energy. Los Angeles Times columnist Sammy Roth wrote about how the growing movement within Hollywood to expand climate change on screen could help increase awareness among viewers. 

In Indonesia, scientists witnessed an orangutan using a medicinal plant to treat a wound on his face, the first behavior of this kind ever documented in a wild animal, according to a new study. Orangutans face a slew of threats—from habitat destruction due to palm oil production to wildfire smoke from climate-fueled fires—so I wanted to point out a bit of good news in this primate world. 

Meanwhile, certain common medications such as diuretics and beta-blockers could be making people more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses at a physiological level, writes Charlotte Hiu for Scientific American. Part of the reason for this is because some medicines disrupt the binding process between cells and a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which helps the body adjust to different temperatures. 

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