MONACA, Pa. – A mural along the far wall at a Firehouse Subs shop in the Beaver Valley Mall in Monaca, Pennsylvania, depicts two Center Township firemen gazing across a stretch of the Ohio River as a barge moves along the waterway. In the distance along the far banks are scaffolding, boom cranes and two teeming ethane towers that appear more than 100 feet tall – an artist’s conception of what many believe represents promise and prosperity for the entire region.
Sometime this summer – no specific date has been announced – production at Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion ethane petrochemical plant in Potter Township will begin, initiating a sense of both hope and anxiety among residents who live in the shadow of the sprawling complex.
For the hopeful, it means jobs and an economic renaissance not felt since the days when Big Steel lined the rivers of western Pennsylvania. For the doubtful, the project represents the threat of toxic air, industrial pollution and an affront to public health and safety.
“I would very much like to move but housing prices have made that difficult,” says Terrie Baumgardner, a resident of the area since the 1970s who now lives in Aliquippa, approximately four miles from the plant. “I find myself needing to escape and am having a hard time trying to make that happen.”
Baumgardner, an outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Clean Air Council, says she and others are concerned that the plant poses serious health risks through the emission of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, into the atmosphere. “The plant will become the largest VOC emitter in southwestern Pennsylvania, she says, “and the second largest in the state.”
Others in nearby communities believe the long-term benefits to the economy far outweigh the risks.
Beaver County Commissioner Jack Manning calls Shell’s investment “the best marketing plan we could have gotten,” noting the high-profile project stands to attract businesses and industries outside the petrochemicals industry to the region. “The best thing Shell did for us is to put us on the map.”
In 2016, Royal Dutch Shell announced a final plan to construct an approximately $6 billion ethane “cracker” plant at a former zinc processing site along the Ohio River near Monaca. The project is the first of its kind in Appalachia and among the largest construction sites in North America.
The plant stretches more than one mile along the Ohio. The Shell complex takes ethane gas pumped from the nearby Utica and Marcellus shale plays and converts – or “cracks” – ethane molecules into two categories of polyethylene.
Linear low-density polyethylene serves as raw materials used to manufacture plastic products such as food packaging, shrink-wrap, flexible tubing and cable insulation. High-density polyethylene is used in sturdier products like toys, shampoo bottles, garden furniture, and hundreds of other items.
“The ethylene stream will be sent to one of three units and further processed to create different types of polyethylene, in pellet form,” says Curtis Thomas, a spokesman for Shell Polymers. Ethane piped into the plant is heated to temperatures greater than 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit in one of the seven furnaces. Pellets are then shipped to manufacturers all over the world.
Thomas says the region is ideal since more than 70% of the U.S. polyethylene market exists within a 700-mile radius of Pittsburgh. Moreover, the Appalachian basin is home to one of the largest caches of natural gas in the world. The combination of nearby feedstock and markets reduces costs and ensures a more reliable supply chain for customers, especially those east of the Mississippi River, he says.
For Beaver County, the entire objective is jobs. During peak construction, the Shell site provided work for some 9,500 tradesmen every day. Since most of the major construction work is nearly complete, that number has scaled down. Once the plant is commissioned, it expects to employ more than 600 full-time, Thomas says.
According to a 2020 study conducted by Robert Morris University, 18 new indirect jobs would be created for each of the 600 full-time positions at the plant. In addition, the study found that the Shell complex could produce between $260 million and $846 million in economic activity annually for Beaver County alone, depending on how many county residents are employed there.
Across a 10-county region, the study projects the annual economic impact could be as much as $3.3 billion a year.
Beaver County’s Manning, who once worked in the petrochemicals industry, says aside from direct employment, the Shell plant has already made a major impact in the community.
Manning says the population of the county – today 168,000 – began to stabilize around 2015 in the wake of the Shell decision. “By mid-decade, we started to see a trend up,” he says, acknowledging that projections in 2010 pegged those numbers to be well under 168,000. Meanwhile, demand for housing also increased. “There is a tremendous amount of new housing starts,” he says.
Still, Manning doesn’t envision Beaver County emerging into a major petrochemical hub that would attract plastics manufacturers to the region.
“This is where I’m pragmatic,” he says.
Manufacturers pay a price per pound from several sources for their raw materials, he says, so it doesn’t make sense for producers to relocate next to a single cracker plant. “There’s no incentive to uproot and get closer to Shell. Seventy percent of their market is a one-day truck ride away.”
Instead, Manning says, companies that provide support services to the plant are likely to see a boost. He points to new businesses that are mostly unrelated to petrochemicals that have relocated to Beaver County because of Shell’s lead. “We have a lot of non-petrochemical companies coming in here,” he says, including a steel galvanizing operation and a glass plant – influenced by the Shell project – that located in the region.
For small businesses, Shell’s cracker plant has already made a visible impact.
A decade ago, bistros and sandwich shops in Beaver Valley Mall struggled to attract a decent lunch crowd.
On a steamy early afternoon in mid-July, the Firehouse Subs shop that recently opened there is jumping with activity as patrons stream in. Several are wearing reflective orange construction vests while two others are dressed in red uniforms embroidered with the familiar yellow Royal Dutch Shell logo.
“This is kind of our go-to place,” said one of the Shell employees as the two sat down for lunch.
Manning says Beaver Valley Mall likely would have closed were it not for Shell. “When Shell announced that they were coming, all of a sudden there was a renewed interest in the mall,” the county commissioner says. “New anchors came in and all around the mall there’s more retail, small businesses, restaurants and different things happening.”
WELCOME TO BEAVER, PA.
Beaver, Pennsylvania, is a quaint borough with a population of 4,838 and less than a mile downriver from the Shell plant. A dry town, the central business district is lined with ice cream parlors, boutiques, craft stores, restaurants, small bakeries and locally owned grocers. On this day, the neatly bricked sidewalks are busy with families ducking in and out of shops, eating at outdoor cafés, or taking a breather on benches near a downtown gazebo that’s topped with an ornate clock.
The Shell presence has had a mixed effect on small businesses and residents here. For some, the arrival of Shell has been transformational. Others are more cautious but have welcomed some of the diversity and change that the Shell project has brought.
“It’s helped us tremendously,” says Kristin Stanzak, owner of Don’s Deli in Beaver. “They started using us for their box lunches and really gave us the opportunity to financially grow within the community.”
She secured the Shell business by happy accident, Stanzak says. A couple who worked in administration at Shell stopped in for lunch one afternoon and enjoyed the food.
“They moved here from Texas. It was their first day in town,” she says. “She took it to her boss and the next thing you know we’re doing 500 box lunches a week.”
As a result, Don’s Deli has enjoyed a “significant boost in business,” Stanzak says. COVID-19 had dampened some activity, but the plant has resumed orders at a healthy clip. “We’ve got to get an order out for 1,000 next week for one day,” she says. “The hope is that this is going to be a monthly order.”
Stanzak says the deli plans to make dedicated deliveries to the plant one day a week, twice a day. She’s confident that the plant has helped other businesses like hers, too. “When the plant was under construction, there were a whole lot of people coming in from out of town. The exposure the whole area has gotten – even internationally – it’s been great for us.”
William Morse, a lifelong resident of Beaver, says he hasn’t seen many locals landing high-paying jobs at the plant. Rather, he observed that most of the full-time employees at Shell are sourced from other parts of the country.
“There’s a real influx of out-of-towners but I haven’t seen anything negative,” he says. “I know a lot of restaurants have gotten more business.”
The single concern for Morse is the increase in traffic. “Traffic is a bear getting into Midland,” he says. “They’ve taken over the mall and caused a huge traffic issue.”
Shell has leased a portion of the Beaver Valley Mall parking lot where it stores dozens of buses that transport construction workers to the plant site. “They’re busing them in and out, twice a day,” Morse says, causing traffic jams as motorists drive toward nearby Midland.
Barb Hughes, manager at Mario’s Woodfire Pizzeria in Beaver, says at first many Shell executives patronized the restaurant. That business, though, has scaled back over the last several years. The arrival of Shell has introduced some welcome diversity, she says, especially from those transplants relocating from the South and Southwest.
“It’s changed the community somewhat,” she says. “Certain stores came in, such as a boot place – places that normally wouldn’t come here.” More restaurants and stores are also carrying items geared toward a more southwestern cuisine. “It’s kind of nice,” she says.
Nevertheless, Hughes acknowledges she harbors some concerns over the impact of the plant on the environment.
A group from another community near a petrochemical plant further south paid a visit to Beaver not long ago, she says, warning residents of what they could expect. “They told us, ‘Wait until the smell comes,’ ” she says. “ ’You won’t be able to sit outside.’”
Hughes says Beaver prides itself as a small town where people sit out on their porches on summer evenings and eat outdoors. It’s a lifestyle that she doesn’t want to see go away. “That’s my concern,” she says.
Hughes isn’t the only one in the area with questions.
The Pennsylvania Clean Air Council’s Terrie Baumgardner says that potential hazardous emissions from the plant could bring long-standing health problems to residents, especially those who suffer from conditions such as asthma. “Air emissions know no boundaries and they don’t stop at townships,” the Aliquippa resident says.
Shell’s Thomas says the plant uses some of the most sophisticated technology to reduce emissions from the operations. Also, Shell has effected controls such as emissions barriers and stringent leak detection equipment. Plus, the design of the plant lessens its impact on the environment and incorporates several sustainability features.
In March, Shell reported that it experienced a 2,500-gallon sulfuric acid spill at the plant. While the company reported the incident to the National Response Center and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency alerted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection about the spill, Baumgardner and others have questioned why the public wasn’t informed of the accident sooner.
“I’m not convinced that all of the emergency protocols that should be in place are in place,” she says. “Shell has said they were going to be a good neighbor – that should mean concern for residents about safety. And that means notifications.”
Beaver County residents have since formed an “Eyes on Shell” watchdog group that monitors for pollutants in water, air or ground. “There are monthly Zoom meetings and an increasing number of residents have joined,” she says. “There are concerns about how this plant impacts residents’ lives – excess lighting from the plant, noise, safety concerns and health.”
Pictured at top: The plant sits on 800 acres along the Ohio River. At peak, 9,500 construction workers were on site.