Pennsylvania DEP Issues Violation Notice to Shell Cracker Plant

MONACA, Pa. – The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC’s new petrochemical facility in Beaver County is in violation of air quality standards.

The DEP issued a notice of violation to the complex Dec. 14. The notice states that the Shell complex, known as Shell Polymers Monaca, exceeded the allowed emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, into the air in September and October as it ramped up operations.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported the violation.

Data provided by Shell to the DEP show that 12-month rolling emissions from the sprawling complex reached 521.6 tons of VOCs in September and hit 662.9 tons in October, the notice said.

Shell’s air quality approval permit mandates that the facility’s emissions shall not equal or exceed 516.2 tons over a 12-month period.

Shell Polymers officially began operations in November. The plant converts ethane gas molecules into plastic pellets, which are then used to manufacture countless products.

However, the plant conducted pre-production tests of its equipment and other operations at the plant before the facility came online.

Curtis Thomas, Shell Polymers’ spokesman, said that ‘intricacies related to starting up such a large plant caused additional flaring,” a process used by petrochemical plants to burn off excessive gas.

“Several factors contributed to the additional flaring during startup, all related to the complexities of commissioning brand new systems and equipment that make up one of the largest construction projects in the country,” he said.

“Though flaring acts as a contingency to combust gases before they enter the atmosphere, no violation is acceptable,” he said. “We will continue to transparently report out and comply with all regulations while also applying learnings and best practices to ensure our operations have no negative impact on people or the environment.”

In September, Shell said a problem with a compressor had caused the plant to flare between 15 and 20 minutes. As a result, smoke and flames poured out of the complex’s flaring tower.

The DEP emphasized that the notice of violation is an initial step and not a final action, and added it is actively investigating the violations and obtaining additional information and reporting from Shell.

As part of the investigation, the DEP has requested that Shell submit a root cause analysis and description of its efforts to minimize flaring and submit a mitigation plan and emissions report within 45 days.

Approval of a DEP air quality plan is required for a facility to begin construction and for its initial operation, the DEP said. These permits impose limits on the levels of pollutants that may be emitted.

Shell’s emissions were below the 12-month rolling limit for air contaminants until September, when the giant facility began preparations for formal operations, the DEP said.

Under Pennsylvania’s air regulations, the Shell “cracker” is considered to be a major source of air contaminants such as nitrogen oxides and VOCs, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hazardous air pollutants and carbon dioxide equivalents.

The DEP also said it may take additional enforcement actions to compel compliance, require corrective actions and assess civil penalties.

Emissions data provided by Shell in November also “showed increases, but not exceedances, of other air contaminants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and hazardous air pollutants,” the DEP said.

The department is currently evaluating ambient air data collected by DEP’s air quality monitoring network.

Shell announced in 2016 a final decision to construct an approximately $6 billion ethane “cracker” plant on the site of a former zinc processor along the Ohio River in Potter Township near Monaca.

During the construction phase, the plant employed more than 8,500 tradesmen. Today, the complex, which stretches about 1 mile along the Ohio, employs approximately 600 full-time workers.

Pictured at top: The plant sits on 800 acres along the Ohio River. 

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