Clifford Lau sat low against the wind as Captain Evan Clark’s 16-foot skiff sped along the southern shoreline of the Ohio River. Beneath steely spires and a towering webwork of pipes, valves and flashing lights, an outfall came into view. A steady stream of water poured out of a pipe beneath Shell’s new petrochemical plant and onto a rocky shore encircled by an orange plastic buffer.
As Clark steered the skiff closer on Oct. 27, an acrid scent wafted off of the river’s surface. “There it is,” said Clark, who had noticed the odor earlier that morning. “Can you smell it?” Orange and yellow leaves lapped against the hull as the small boat drifted to the edge of the outfall and Lau, a chemist, stood to prepare his equipment.
“Oh yes,” Lau replied. They couldn’t be quite sure what it was. A solvent, perhaps? It warranted further investigation.
The chemist lifted the lid off of a large, clear plastic bucket and fixed a bag to a valve on the underside. He attached a tube to the top and extended it across the bow and toward the water’s surface. The bag began to inflate, capturing an air sample that would later be tested for contaminants.
In Beaver County, as Shell’s hulking petrochemical plant slowly scales toward full capacity, a growing network of local citizens is doggedly watching the facility. Among the communities surrounding the cracker plant, as it’s known, residents are organizing to keep tabs on their new industrial neighbor. Some are installing air monitors and cameras on their homes, and others are gathering samples from the water’s edge. Many are documenting their experiences and observations as the plant spurs changes to their neighborhoods.
The cracker’s construction was completed earlier this year. It produces plastic pellets no larger than a lentil by converting, or ‘cracking,’ ethane sourced from nearby fracking operations into polyethylene — the building blocks of single-use and other plastics. It occupies about 800 acres along the southern shore of the Ohio in Potter Township. When production reaches capacity, the cracker will produce up to 1.6 million metric tons of plastics each year and will be the second largest polluter of volatile organic compounds in the state.
“It’s a critical time,” said Lau, formerly of Duquesne University and now a board member of Eyes on Shell, a grassroots accountability initiative of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community [BCMAC]. Lau is working with the citizen scientists and local watchdogs to document the impact of Shell’s new plastics plant on the community and climate in an effort to hold the global conglomerate accountable to state and federal regulations.
Soon, Shell will need to apply to the state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] and federal Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] for a Title V permit that would essentially allow the plant to operate for five years. In anticipation of a future public comment period, the citizen scientists and watchdogs of Eyes on Shell are gathering data that could be a lynchpin of resident input into that process.
Preparing for petrochemicals, Eyes on Shell awakens
Eyes on Shell was born about a year ago, while the cracker was still under construction, at a BCMAC-led meeting about preparing for the petrochemical industry. Since then, Eyes on Shell has grown into the central grassroots organizing and accountability organization surrounding the plant. The group meets virtually each month to update community members and share concerns and questions.
There’s no formal membership, but Eyes on Shell gets about 50 to 70 participants at each meeting. Some journal their observations or send in photographs of what they see happening at the plant via email or an online form. A community hotline was recently launched.
The organization details how to properly record and document an incident on its website. Take photos. Keep a journal of your observations. The group encourages residents to be as detailed as possible when reporting. Basics like date and time are essential, but so are wind direction and weather, sounds and smells and changes observed to plants or pets — anything that might indicate that something is amiss.
“Eyes on Shell,” said Terrie Baumgardner, who’s been a member of BCMAC since 2011, “is a good vehicle for people to get involved and to push back as much as they can. To hold accountable, to make sure [Shell] realizes we want transparency, that we’re expecting these things. To know that when they say they’re going to be a good neighbor, as they’ve said since 2012, that they put some teeth into that, that it’s not just empty words.”
Establishing a baseline and incident response
Back on the waters of the Ohio, the bag in the bucket was full of air. Its contents would be sent to a lab for analysis, and the results added to a growing database cataloging incidents to which Lau and Eyes on Shell have responded.
With his instruments and buckets, Lau is the go-to guy when it comes to sampling. He coordinates what he calls the “episodic response team” (usually he and his Honda Fit) and responds to citizen reports of smoke or flaring or strange smells near the cracker. Often, he contacts the DEP to share his observations and findings, and files official complaints when warranted.
“So far, we’ve had several instances, and I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a complete story on any of them,” said Lau. Last September, a sweet maple syrup-like smell spread through communities near the plant; the DEP cited Shell, which attributed the odor to anti-corrosion treatment. In March, 2,000 gallons of sulfuric acid spilled on-site due to faulty equipment. And in August, a foam-like substance that Shell said was likely caused by a mixture of cleaning agents was identified on the river’s surface at the same outfall along the river. Lau responded to each, along with a few flaring events, to collect samples.
“It almost seems kind of convenient,” said Lau. “Shell did those things early on, and we find that we’re able to get mobilized and realized, well gee, we’re going to need some kind of like a group watching. … So in some ways Shell doing these little hiccups have helped us get ready.”
Lau said regulators like the DEP have too few people doing the work and lack the capacity to respond to incidents quickly enough to get air samples. In many cases, smells only last a couple of hours, if that, so Lau said it’s important that citizens are able to gather their own samples.
The DEP, in response to questions from PublicSource, described a multi-layered process for tracking Shell’s emissions, involving pollution control and measurement equipment installed by the company, frequent staff visits to the site and air quality monitors arrayed in communities surrounding the cracker.
From a regulatory perspective, documentation provided by citizen scientists is “very crucial,” said Mark Gorog, the DEP’s regional air quality program manager. He noted that the DEP has a team in Harrisburg that does air monitoring, drawing on data from a number of continuous monitors that the DEP has in place around the facility.
When Eyes on Shell reports a problem, he said, “We’ll make every effort to get out as quickly as we can.” But he acknowledged that “it’s hard to get out there at the drop of a hat.”
Citizen-generated information, alone, isn’t enough for an enforcement action, he added. “Generally we want to collect our own data,” he told attendees of an Eyes on Shell monthly meeting in early November.
Clifford Lau stands for a portrait on the southern shore of the Ohio River in Monaca on Oct. 27. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)
The buckets Lau uses, although simple, are proven tools among citizen scientists. They’ve been used most notably by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade for similar petrochemical-related watchdog efforts in the Bayou. Once supply chain complications subside, Lau hopes to have at least five buckets available to Eyes on Shell and plans to train residents to properly collect samples.
In the future, Lau plans to purchase tubes that test for hazardous air pollutants like benzene, and a photoionization detector that can pick up volatile organic compounds. Lau receives grant funding through the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based clearinghouse for air quality information. The Breathe Project is set to receive an EPA grant of nearly $500,000 to enhance monitoring of pollution in the Upper Ohio River Valley.
Lau worked at Polaroid and then Bayer, a pharmaceutical company, as a research scientist for 23 years, part of it on a team that sought to develop a plastic car. “I thought it was kind of ironic that I came to the steel city to develop a plastic car,” he said. Later, he moved to teaching chemistry at local universities.
“I tell my students that in order to be a good citizen of the world, you need to know a little chemistry,” said Lau. “And I think I try to bring that to the environmental people that have a lot of [motivation] but maybe not the science background.”
Before the plant began ramping up operations, the emphasis was on identifying a baseline so that when the plant is fully up and running, its impact can be accurately measured. “Today is not baseline,” said Lau as he took some final notes near the dock along the Ohio. “There was something out there.”
“I don’t think we’re going to shut down Shell,” he added. “But I want to make sure with my chemistry background and science that we make sure that Shell operates as safe as possible.”
A home with a view, a deck with a smell
When they bought a home on a hill high above the Ohio in 2021, Donna Treemarchi and her husband, Dominick, weren’t immediately concerned that they would be so close to the cracker. Donna likes the view — to the east at least. She studies the ospreys and the eagles that nest in the trees along the river, and she built a garden along the hillside. “I wish you could see it when it was full bloom. It was beautiful.”
The couple moved out to Potter to be closer to their son who lives in the house across the street, grandchildren, and two young great-grandchildren. The son helped build the plant as an electrician, but now his job there is done.
When Lau first approached the couple about installing a camera on the property, Donna was opposed. She didn’t want it to put any holes in her house. But as time went on and trains shuttled to the plant on the tracks beneath their home, waking her in the early morning, Donna’s concern began to grow. If the noise was worse than she had expected, what else could be? One morning, the smell of chemicals met her at the door to the deck where she likes to relax. She couldn’t stand to be outside.
“If something is going on there that shouldn’t be, they should be held liable,” said Donna, a paralegal.
A few weeks ago, Lau stopped by again and asked about installing a Breathe Camera on their property to gather imagery of the cracker. Breathe Cameras, the same kind that monitor U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and other large polluters throughout the region, are designed at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and managed by the university’s CREATE Lab. They take a photograph every second, which are then digitally stitched into a live stream and made publicly available online.
One has already been installed across the river. The Treemarchis are hoping to host another.
CREATE Lab is working with BCMAC and Eyes on Shell to validate the experiences of those who will be living right next to the cracker, said Ana Hoffman, director of air quality engagement at the lab. CREATE Lab will also organize and catalog all of the samples that Lau and Eyes on Shell collect and identify patterns and exceedances — essentially, said Hoffman, asking the question: “Is this safe?”
Low-cost, high-stakes monitoring
On the other side of the river, in a housing complex set back from the river in Vanport, Beth Biebuyck installed a different type of monitor on her home. She wants to understand the impact of the cracker.
“I have asthma,” she said. “I have it under control right now.” She’s worried that pollution from the cracker could make her sick and affect the health of her sister Pat, with whom she lives, who has chronic fatigue syndrome. Moving, she added, is “pretty much a definite if we can’t breathe here.”
The monitors, developed by PurpleAir and maintained by local advocate and filmmaker Mark Dixon, are an affordable and scalable way to measure volatile organic compounds and particulates from homes in the area. To date, Dixon has deployed monitors at 24 sites surrounding the cracker plant.
These are not regulatory-grade monitors, said Dixon, but rather a “community-level endeavor” that helps advocates and watchdogs to ask better questions, build community, support and further validate the work of higher-grade sampling like the kind Lau conducts.
“The more a corporate entity feels watched, the better,” added Dixon. “Will Shell have free reign?” he posed. “Or will they face scrutiny at every turn?”
Watching the waterways for nurdles
Captain Evan Clark noticed the chemical smell by the outfall that morning while he was out patrolling the Ohio for something else: nurdles, the tiny plastic pellets produced by the cracker plant and other facilities.
The nurdle patrol is a joint effort of Three Rivers Waterkeeper and Mountain Watershed Association, two nonprofit advocacy organizations committed to preserving the health of the region’s rivers. Waterkeeper Executive Director Heather Hulton VanTassel said a major priority is to monitor the cracker plant and make sure Shell doesn’t violate its permits. The nurdle patrol is an effort to understand the baseline number of nurdles in the Ohio, so that when the plant reaches full operation they’ll be able to accurately measure any change.
When foam was found in the river near the outfall, Three Rivers Waterkeeper sampled water to look for contaminants, submitted an official complaint to the DEP and filed a public records request for the chemical makeups of the substances Shell said they spilled.
On Oct. 27, Clark was out with James Cato, of the Mountain Watershed Association, and Anaïs Peterson, of the national environmental nonprofit Earthworks. They trawled the waters upstream and downstream of the plant and inspected the shores for fugitive plastics.
Near the outfall, Cato pulled a nurdle from among the leaves and debris wedged along the edge of the orange plastic buffer. Small and translucent, nurdles take different shapes, sizes and colors, and have different chemical compositions depending on where they’re produced. The patrol is working to monitor the specific ratios of chemicals in the nurdles they find. The ones they found that day looked fresh, Cato said, as he grasped the tiny nurdle and secured it in a capsule for analysis.
Moving forward, said Clark, the organizations want to empower residents to do their own nurdle patrols on the shores of the river by using kayaks and makeshift trawls made of pantyhose. They will hold a training for residents in mid-November.
Citizen monitoring, said Clark, will “provide those eyes, and then we can pass it up the chain to us and eventually DEP or EPA.”
An impending permit: Title V
“The major facilities operate under the Title V permit,” explained Mark Gorog from the DEP. “Shell is a Title V facility because the potential to emit is major for a variety of pollutants.”
Title V is an air pollution control program that stemmed from a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act. Title V sets emission levels for pollutants like PM 2.5 and PM 10 (particulate matter), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hazardous air pollutants, nitrogen and sulfur oxides. It also determines the monitoring and control parameters for a plant’s emissions.
Shell does not yet have a Title V permit, which will dictate if and how it is allowed to operate for five years. The company hasn’t applied to the DEP for one yet, said Gorog. “Honestly, we’re a couple years away from that.” Right now, the cracker is considered by DEP to be in a period of “temporary operation.”
Shell needs to start the plant, demonstrate compliance with existing conditions of operation, conduct tests and analyze the results, Gorog said. “There’s a lot of work that’s ongoing at this time,” he said. “We’re meeting regularly with Shell.”
The citizen scientists of Eyes on Shell plan to be ready when public comment starts on the eventual Title V application.
“What the public can do to help influence the Title V is by presenting evidence that the company isn’t doing their best,” said Lau. “Combat their numbers with our numbers.”
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter and instagram @quinnglabicki.
This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia.
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