Shell Faces Lawsuit Over ‘Pollution Events’ at Cracker Plant

MONACA, Pa. – Two environmental groups filed a complaint in federal court Thursday against Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC, alleging its Beaver County petrochemical complex has “repeatedly violated, is violating, and will continue to violate” the Clean Air Act, the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act and other measures.

The Environmental Integrity Project and Clean Air Council filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, charging that the Shell plant has violated air pollution standards and poses a public health risk.

“Shell’s persistent law-breaking must end,” Joseph Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “The community will not tolerate dangerous pollution events that risk the health of families across Beaver County and beyond.”

Shell Chemical operates a sprawling ethane “cracker” plant near Monaca, Pa., on 800 acres along the Ohio River.  The approximately $6 billion petrochemical complex processes ethane gas into polyethylene pellets that are used in most plastic products. Shell selected the site because of its proximity to a readily available stock of natural gas in the Utica and Marcellus shale plays.

Shell announced the start of commercial operations in November 2022, after a six-year construction phase that employed thousands of tradesmen.

According to the complaint, the ethane cracker plant has violated emission standards that must be met on a 12-month rolling basis. The plant’s flares and wastewater treatment plant, for example, have released harmful pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and carbon monoxide, the lawsuit says.

These materials, the complaint states, could lead to breathing and respiratory disorders, skin rashes, headaches, nausea and ear, nose and throat irritation. Volatile organic compounds such as benzene are carcinogens, the complaint reads.

The complaint states that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not properly enforced Shell’s compliance with the Clean Air Act or the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act, prompting the lawsuit.

According to the Clean Air Council, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection shows Shell was given 12 notices of air pollution violations since January 2022, “but no enforcement actions or penalties from the state.”

During that same period, Shell submitted 39 reports of malfunctions at the plant, including a flaring incident on Feb. 13, 2023, that released flames and plumes of black smoke for several hours, the council said.

Among the more recent issues at the plant occurred on April 11, when a malfunction at the plant’s wastewater treatment system led to the release of high levels of benzene, according to the complaint.

The air monitors measured benzene as high as 185 micrograms per cubic meter – which is more than six times higher than federal guidelines for short-term exposure to this pollutant, the council said.

Local residents reported strong odors, headaches, watery eyes, irritated throats and nausea during the benzene release incident.

“The council’s members are concerned about the impact of the plant’s illegal pollution on their health and the health of their families,” the complaint says.  In some cases, the lawsuit states, residents have suffered headaches or felt nauseous when subjected to odors from the plant.

One member, the lawsuit adds, has delayed starting a family “due to illegal pollution at the plant,” while others “fear they may be forced to move away from their current home due to impacts they and their families experience from illegal pollution from the plant.”

Earlier this month, Shell CEO Wael Sawan said on a conference call with analysts that the problems related to the Pennsylvania cracker plant were “technical niggles.”

The plant is currently shut down while Shell reviews issues associated with the flare system.

Shell spokesman Curtis Thomas said in a statement late Thursday that the company is “continuing to work rapidly to improve facilities and operations to address these issues in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.”

Thomas added that Shell is also committed to all county, state and federal regulations. “And when there is an issue, we work to fix it,” he said. “We learn from those issues and work to improve so that we can be the good environmental steward, neighbor, and business partner this region wants and deserves.”

The plaintiffs want the court to order Shell to “take all actions necessary” to obey federal and state law, asses civil penalties of up to $117,468 per day for each violation of the Clean Air Act, assess penalties of $25,000 per day, per violation, of the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act and enjoin Shell from operating the plant unless it is compliant with the CAA and the APCA, the complaint states.

The environmental groups in February provided Shell with intent to sue letters related to the alleged violations, the lawsuit notes.

“Shell received $1.6 billion in taxpayer subsidies from the state to build this plant, said Sarah Kula, 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.”

Pictured at top: The Shell ethane “cracker” plant sits on 800 acres along the Ohio River.

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