Article written by Anya Litvak for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Originally published October 5, 2020
To date, what we know about the petrochemical plant under construction in Beaver County has come from its owner, Shell Chemical Co.
That won’t always be the case. When the plant starts producing its plastic pellets sometime in the next few years, it will put information into the world, through air and water emissions.
A number of local environmental and citizen groups are mobilizing to scoop up that data and shift the information and, they hope, the power dynamic between the multinational company and its Beaver County neighbors.
“We’re on the cusp of a different state of human observation,” Mark Dixon, a Pittsburgh-based film maker and environmental advocate, predicted during the first of several Zoom seminars last month organized to prepare citizens for when the Shell plant comes online.
“It’s not just putting up two or three or 20 [air] monitors; it’s how will we as a community work with our emergency responders, how will we work with the businesses, how will we relate to government — when we all know, in a very detailed way, every bit of pollution that crosses our path.
“Totally pervasive, systemic monitoring will change these relationships,” Mr. Dixon said.
The seminars — there have been two so far in the “Health & Safety in Beaver County” series — are meant to educate local citizens on how they can protect themselves from dangers that may creep through air, water or land. More than 100 people registered, according to organizers.
The sessions are hosted by Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, a group that originally formed in 2011 to organize against oil and gas development around the Ambridge Reservoir. But the group has devoted much of its efforts of the past few years to trying to stop the petrochemical buildout in general and Shell’s facility in particular.
If that was ever a possibility, it looks like a distant one now.
Construction of the massive, multibillion-dollar Beaver County plant is about 70% completed, Hilary Mercer, Shell’s vice president for the Pennsylvania Chemicals project estimated at the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s Shale Insight conference last week. All major structures are already on site and the remaining work consists of linking them together.
The 98-mile Falcon pipeline is 95% done, Ms. Mercer said. It will deliver ethane, the natural gas liquid that will be heated and turned into plastic, to the plant.
Coming off the COVID-19 pandemic-related hiatus, 6,000 workers are back on the construction site.
“We have started commissioning some of our utility systems,” Ms. Mercer said, and “early next year, I expect we’d start firing up some of our gas boilers.”
Data as protection
By that time, Beaver County citizens so inclined can get up to speed on the rapidly growing reserve of air and water quality data already out there.
Once people understand what’s already being collected, they can get involved in filling the gaps, some speakers on the Zoom calls urged.
Eric Harder, the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper at the Mountain Watershed Association, offered to train people for “nurdle patrol.” Nurdles are the plastic pellets that will be produced at the Shell cracker plant. They are the building blocks of countless consumer products, from plastic bags to car seats.
Some of the stuff will undoubtedly end up spilled into the environment, during train loading for example, just as grain kernels waft during transfer, Mr. Harder said.
This fall, his organization will begin collecting data on nurdles and microplastics in the Youghiogheny, Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. Most of the collections are done by volunteers who can make their own kits out of a plastic bottle and some panty hose.
The 3RQ program — which stands for Three Rivers Quest — at West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute is already incorporating citizen science into its monitoring of the Upper Ohio River Basin.
The university began collecting data on total dissolved solids in the Monongahela River more than a decade ago. It has since expanded into other water quality parameters, and other rivers, and posts results here.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a handful of air quality monitors around the plant site, although most measure pollutants not typically associated with the production of ethylene. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also posts tables of air quality results from a series of monitors all over the state.
But nothing compares to the explosion of citizen-generated air quality data made available to the public over the past few years.
While Shell will have a series of fence-line monitors tracking air quality after it starts to operate — the result of a settlement with environmental groups — Mr. Dixon is looking for residents who live within a 10-mile radius of the plant to host their own devices.
He plans to install sensors that track fine particulates and volatile organic compounds, or VOC — the kinds that the Shell plant is permitted to discharge more of than any other facility in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The VOC data will feed into a regional virtual map of these monitors that’s run out of the Create Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.
The particulate sensor will be a PurpleAir monitor, a device that has soared in popularity over the past several years, boosted at first by California residents who wanted to keep track of air pollution during wildfires.
Now, PurpleAir LLC, a Utah-based company, has dozens of monitors in the Pittsburgh region feeding real time data into its virtual map.
Mr. Dixon installed many of the first ones. “I was a little Johnny Appleseed of PurpleAirs all over the Pittsburgh area. Now there are apple trees everywhere,” he said.
Seeing so much progress in just a few years makes Mr. Dixon believe that the future of ubiquitous environmental surveillance can’t be all that far.
What if Apple figures out a way to put an air monitor into its popular watch? What if smartphones are designed to detect dangerous air conditions?
Whether it’s “if” or “when,” the fact that people are now buying standalone air monitors is a sign that “the current system for people to have agency over polluters is lacking,” Mr. Dixon said.
“If the laws were great and they felt those laws were being obeyed and there was no risk, they wouldn’t invest $200 dollars for a device to put on their porch.”
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