A massive, $6 billion plastics plant is “approximately 95% complete,” said Bill Watson, Shell Polymers Monaca general manager, during a “virtual community meeting” hosted by the company Thursday evening.
“We’ve got about 4,000 construction professionals that remain on-site,” Watson said. “That’s down from our peak of about 8,500 construction professionals. And as we continue to finish construction of the plant, we continue to ramp down on the construction personnel, ultimately getting to about 600 full-time employees that will have to run and maintain the site going forward, as well as our contract support.”
The facility, along the Ohio River in Monaca, across from Beaver, spans 386 acres. Opponents worry that the hazardous air pollutants from the site, roughly 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, could turn the region into another “Cancer Alley,” as the ring of petrochemical facilities in the Gulf of Mexico is known, or result in small plastic nurdles produced at the plant polluting area waterways.
This new plastics or “cracker” plant takes fracked natural gas and “cracks” it into ethylene, which is then transformed into polyethylene, the most commonly used form of plastic. Shell stated that the facility’s maximum operational rate is approximately 120,000 barrels of ethane per day into the plant.
The plant is part of a larger vision to turn Appalachia into a petrochemical hub, but inflation and geopolitical instabilities are putting a pause on those plans for the moment. This includes another ethane to plastics plant in limbo intended for Dilles Bottom, Ohio, south of Morgantown along the West Virginia border.
The hour-long event started promptly at 6 pm. Questions submitted privately via a chat box were answered by Shell during a 13-minute window at the end of the meeting. The names and affiliations of those who posed questions were not presented, nor the number of attendees.
A Shell spokesperson asked a question from somebody who wondered whether the region’s airshed would actually improve once the plant is in operation. Others asked about the jobs created by the plant, evacuation plans, and a March sulfuric acid spill, caused by a faulty flange.
Of the 600 full-time workers, Watson said “the overwhelming majority” were from “the local area,” but did not provide specifics.
Regarding evacuation plans, Shell stated “our facility is not required to provide a full scope, if you will, of evacuation plans for you and the community. Certainly, we’re following federal guidelines. Some facilities have to provide a physical evacuation plan. But what we actually do is we work with Beaver County Emergency Services. And again, should there be a situation that we would be recommending to the community, we would give that information to Beaver County.”
Shell announced the plant on March 5, 2012, saying Pennsylvania had won the “cracker sweepstakes.” At the time, Shell received what was estimated to be the largest tax subsidy in Pennsylvania history: $1.65 billion over 25 years.
A Shell environmental manager urged people to contact Shell with any questions, specifically about their passive air monitoring system. “We really want you to have this information because protecting the community, our people, and the environment is Shell’s top priority.”
He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.
He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.