Shell Cracker Plant Threatens to Make Southwestern PA Next “Cancer Alley”


June 2018: University of Pittsburgh students drop banner calling on Mayor Peduto to decry Potter Township cracker plant off of Smithfield St. Bridge | Photo credit: Mark Dixon, Flickr

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

Today is the day that President Trump was due to visit the Shell petrochemical facility currently under construction in Beaver County. Although the trip has been postponed in light of this weekend’s tragic mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, the fact that the President plans to visit reflects just how significant the plant is; it will have drastic ramifications not only for the region but for the country as a whole. Here’s what you should know about it.

In 2012, then-Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett struck a deal with Shell Oil to allow for a large plot of land along the Ohio River in Potter Township, less than 30 miles from Pittsburgh, to be used as the site for a new “cracker” plant. The plant would capture ethane, a harmless and abundant byproduct of fracking in the Marcellus shale, and turn it into into ethylene to be used for plastic products through a process known as “cracking” (hence the name).

The deal required Shell to invest at least $1 billion in the state and create at least 2,500 jobs in the region. In exchange, the company was granted substantial tax incentives of up to $66 million per year, or about 20 percent of what it would otherwise owe. Site preparation began in 2015, and construction was underway two years later. Since inheriting the project, Governor Wolf has made it a focal point of his plan for economic development in the state, calling the plant a “game changer.” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has echoed these sentiments. “Thrilling,” he says.

Though there are several cracker plants presently in the works across the United States, Beaver County’s is one of the largest, making it a critical asset in Trump’s strategy to cement the nation’s dependence on petrochemicals. And, as is often the nature of such assets, it also raises serious concerns about climate change.

Essentially, cracking involves heating ethane to the point that it breaks apart into ethylene, a hydrocarbon compound that is used in 99 percent of plastics. In addition to consuming massive amounts of energy, that process releases high levels of carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere. The facility’s permit allows it to emit 2.25 million tons of CO₂ each year, which is equal to roughly one third of the annual CO₂ emissions of the entire city of Pittsburgh; the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it will take 15 percent of Pennsylvania’s total forest coverage to neutralize that effect. Models suggest that the pollution will not be limited to the area immediately surrounding the plant, but will affect Pittsburgh dramatically as well. Moreover, the products made with the ethylene produced by the plant will add to the 10 million tons of plastic already deposited into the world’s oceans each year.

The plant also poses an enormous threat to the health of the residents of southwestern Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates that, once operational, the plant will emit 522 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) annually, dwarfing the VOC emissions of the region’s current leader, Clairton Coke Works (152 tons). 

VOCs are extremely harmful when inhaled. In Louisiana, an area of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to most of the country’s cracker plants has been dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to the exceedingly high rates of cancer among its inhabitants. Allegheny County is already in the second percentile nationally for cancer risk, and faces becoming the next “Cancer Alley” should the plant in question be completed. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the region’s leading healthcare providers are now investing in major new cancer centers.

Finally, the plant will render the Ohio River Valley even more reliant on natural gas drilling than it already is: Shell is building a 97-mile pipeline to transport ethane from three key fracking sites in Pennsylvania and Ohio to the facility, and ground has already been broken on a separate cracker plant, jointly owned by two Asian corporations—PTT Global Chemical of Thailand and Daelim Industrial Co. of South Korea—in eastern Ohio. This raises questions about the role that America will play over the coming decades in preserving the fossil fuel industry even as much of the rest of the world goes clean.

Shell says its plant will generate approximately six thousand short-term construction jobs; however, its full-time employees will number just one tenth of that once it’s up and running, likely in the early 2020s.

People Over Petro, a new coalition of grassroots environmental advocacy organizations, is actively working to stop the plant’s construction. If they succeed, it will mark a major victory in the ongoing fight to ensure independence from unsustainable energy in the region. Otherwise, the climate of southwestern Pennsylvania, along with its residents’ health, could be irreversibly compromised, and the rest of the country, looking to Potter Township for cues, might soon follow suit.

If you’re interested in seeing the construction of the plant come to an end, there are plenty of ways to get involved. People Over Petro hosts regular events and petition drives; you can find out more by visiting their website. If that’s not an option for you, simply spreading the word about the plant and its attendant dangers is a much-needed measure to begin encouraging large-scale action. As local environmental filmmaker Mark Dixon says, “The Shell cracker plant is not a done deal.”