Two environmental groups sued Shell on Thursday, claiming that air emissions from its massive new petrochemical plant about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh repeatedly violated federal and state air-quality laws and far exceeded limits set in its operating permit. The plant officially opened in November 2022 after months of testing.
The Environmental Integrity Group and the Clean Air Council said Shell Chemical Appalachia emitted volatile organic compounds including benzene, a carcinogen, as well as nitrous oxide, at levels that exceeded requirements set by state authorities.
The 400-acre complex on the banks of the Ohio River in Monaca, Beaver County, also broke state rules on the length of time that it flared, or burned off, waste gases, the suit said.
The legal action, which follows an Intent to Sue notice by the plaintiffs in February, is the latest action by community opponents who predicted long before operations began that the plant would worsen air and water quality in a region that has endured historically high levels of air pollution as a result of decades of coal and steel production.
“We are witnessing, unfortunately, what many have warned about our region’s choice to follow a petrochemical industry-centered economic strategy: harmful pollution and health costs being placed on families and workers,” said Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that campaigns for better air quality. “Just like elsewhere where this industry operates, this lawsuit documents physical pollution failures stemming from bad economic regional strategic bets on outdated business models that neglect the health of communities.”
Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, declined to comment on a matter in litigation.
Since being announced in 2015, the estimated $6 billion project has been criticized for attracting $1.6 billion in state subsidies from the administration of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. It has also come under fire from environmentalists for “cracking” molecules of ethane, a byproduct of fracked natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, to produce what is estimated to be 1.6 million metric tons a year of plastic “nurdles,” tiny pellets that are the feedstock for plastics manufacturers.
“Shell received $1.6 billion in taxpayer subsidies from the state to build this plant,” said Sarah Kula, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “The very least this international corporation can do is to follow the law and not make Pennsylvania taxpayers breathe in their illegal pollution.”
Alex Bomstein, an attorney with Clean Air Council, said the plaintiffs had been in talks with Shell during the required 60 days since filing the Intent to Sue notice. But he declined to say whether talks had broken down, or why.
The suit says that Shell has emitted high levels of volatile organic compounds, which contribute to atmospheric petrochemical reactions and can produce health effects including headaches, dizziness, respiratory tract infection and memory impairment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The suit also alleges that Shell has exceeded its permitted level of nitrous oxide, which can cause dizziness, impaired memory and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company’s emissions of both substances violates the federal Clean Air Act, and Pennsylvania’s Air Pollution Control Act, the suit says.
Under its operating permits, the plant would be the second biggest emitter of volatile organic chemicals in the state.
“The repeated and ongoing … violations at the plant harm the health and disrupt the lives” of Clean Air Council members “and other individuals who live, go to school, recreate, and work near the plant,” the suit says.
In asking the court to find that Shell violated the federal and state laws as well as its operating permit, the lawsuit seeks to have Shell remedy its violations and cease operations until it comes back into compliance. It also calls for the court to impose a civil penalty of $117,000 for each day that Shell allegedly violated the Clean Air Act, and $25,000 a day for allegedly violating the state’s Air Pollution Control Act.
Andie Grey, an opponent of the plant who lives about three miles away in Moon Township, said residents have experienced flaring events, loud overnight noises and strange odors since the plant opened.
“All of these interfere with the ability to live in the vicinity of this facility,” Grey said in a statement. “This community does not tolerate this behavior, and we will continue to work together as citizens and neighbors to hold Shell accountable.”
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In an interview, Grey, 40, said that since the plant opened, she has experienced migraines for the first time, and she suspects the emissions are responsible. “Living in the vicinity of the petrochemical facility has definitely affected my health,” she said. “I am in the process right now with physicians of trying to identify why I keep having migraine headaches. I don’t have conclusive evidence right now that it is happening because of where I’m living but I have no history of this.”
Grey said she has experienced about half a dozen instances of flaring, a process used to burn off gas during production or clear gas from pipes during a shutdown or other emergency. Although she can’t see the plant from her house, she said the flaring has created an orange glow in the night sky about half a dozen times since last September.
From September to December last year, the suit says Shell’s VOC emissions exceeded limits set by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for 12-month rolling totals. The company is permitted to emit up to 516.2 tons in any 12-month period but produced more than that in each of the four months starting in September, going as high as 741.5 tons in December.
Nitrous oxide emissions also topped the state limit, the suit says. After the DEP set a 328.5-ton limit for a 12-month period, the plant exceeded that limit every month from December 2022 to March 2023, when it reached the highest level of that period at 420.4 tons, the suit said.
On April 11, a malfunction in the facility’s wastewater plant released benzene at 185 micrograms per cubic meter, or more than six times higher than the federal health limit, the lawsuit says.
On flaring, the company periodically exceeded a limit of five minutes in any consecutive two-hour period, the suit says. One flare was lit for between 7.5 and 11 minutes in September and October last year, the suit says. On Feb. 13, that flare ran for 2 hours and 45 minutes, it says.
The plant has drawn 14 notices of air-quality violations from the DEP since July 2022, the most recent being on April 17. None of the violations have resulted in enforcement actions or penalties, the suit says. According to DEP records, Shell reported 31 malfunctions during the same period.
“Any efforts to hold Shell accountable are deeply important,” said Anais Peterson, a petrochemical campaigner with Earthworks, an advocacy group that opposes pollution from mining and the oil and gas industry. “The facility is so egregiously malfunctioning. The malfunctions and notices of violation and toxic releases are unacceptable.”