Health & Safety
Shell Faces Suit Over Exceeding Emissions Limits at New Pennsylvannia Mega-Plant
May 23 2023
Two environmental organizations have taken legal action against Shell, alleging that the company's new large-scale petrochemical facility, located approximately 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, has consistently breached federal and state air quality regulations. The plant, which officially began operations in November 2022, is accused of surpassing the emission limits set in its operational permit.
The Environmental Integrity Group and the Clean Air Council maintain that Shell Chemical Appalachia has released volatile organic compounds, including the carcinogen benzene and nitrous oxide, in quantities exceeding state-mandated thresholds. The lawsuit also claims that the 400-acre site, situated along the Ohio River in Monaca, Beaver County, violated state regulations regarding the duration of waste gas flaring.
This lawsuit follows an 'Intent to Sue' notice issued by the plaintiffs in February and represents the most recent move by community activists. These groups have long voiced concerns that the plant would exacerbate the region's air and water pollution—issues that have lingered due to decades of coal and steel production.
Matthew Mehalik, Executive Director of the Breathe Project, lamented that the region's decision to pursue a petrochemical-centric economic strategy is proving detrimental to the health and well-being of families and workers. He expressed concern over the harmful pollution resulting from outdated business models that disregard community health.
Shell's spokesperson, Curtis Smith, refrained from commenting on ongoing legal matters. The project, announced in 2015 and estimated to cost $6 billion, has drawn criticism for receiving $1.6 billion in state subsidies under former Republican Governor Tom Corbett's administration. Critics have also condemned the plant for producing an estimated 1.6 million metric tons of plastic "nurdles"—the primary material for plastic manufacturers—through "cracking" ethane molecules, a byproduct of fracked natural gas.
Sarah Kula, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, criticized Shell for failing to comply with legal requirements despite receiving significant state subsidies. Alex Bomstein, an attorney with the Clean Air Council, confirmed ongoing discussions with Shell but declined to provide further details.
The lawsuit asserts that Shell has breached federal and state laws by exceeding permissible emission levels of volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide. These substances, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cause health issues ranging from headaches and dizziness to respiratory tract infections, memory impairment, and even death. The suit is seeking a court ruling declaring Shell's violations and demanding that operations cease until compliance is achieved. It also advocates for daily civil penalties of $117,000 and $25,000 for violating the federal Clean Air Act and the state's Air Pollution Control Act, respectively.
Andie Grey, a local resident opposing the plant, shared her experiences of disruptive flaring events, unusual noises, and strange odors since the facility's opening. She revealed that she has started suffering from migraines, which she suspects are related to the plant's emissions. Her account underscores the potential health risks associated with the plant's operation and the community's determination to hold Shell accountable for its actions.
Despite the plant's legal emission limits, Shell's VOC emissions from September to December last year exceeded state-set limits for 12-month totals, according to the lawsuit. Additionally, nitrous oxide emissions surpassed the state's limit from December 2022 to March 2023. The facility has received 14 notices of air-quality violations from the DEP since July 2022, but no penalties have been enforced.
Anais Peterson, a petrochemical campaigner with Earthworks, underscored the importance of holding Shell accountable, calling the malfunctions, violation notices, and toxic releases "unacceptable."
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