Two environmental groups said on Thursday they intend to sue Shell Chemical Appalachia, operator of a big new petrochemical plant near Pittsburgh, for its violation of federal and state air-quality standards.

The Environmental Integrity Project and the Clean Air Council gave Shell a required 60 days to respond to their notice of intent to sue on the grounds that the company violated the federal Clean Air Act, a state plan to implement it, a Pennsylvania air-quality law and the state permits under which it is allowed to emit specific quantities of some contaminants.

Since the Shell Polymers Monaca [SPM] plant in Potter Township officially began operating on Nov. 15, it has exceeded state permit limits for volatile organic compounds [VOCs], nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, according to records from the state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]. It is also charged with violating state limits on flaring unwanted gases at various times between June and September. 

The plant, built to produce 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets per year, has received permits from the state that allow it to emit 159 tons of fine particulate matter and 522 tons of volatile organic compounds per year—amounts that would make it  the second-largest emitter of those VOCs  in the state. 

Although the plaintiffs say they are prepared to sue, they also invited Shell to meet “to discuss resolution of this matter prior to the expiration of the 60-day pre-suit notice period, “ they said in a letter.

The notice marks an escalation of action against the company, which is already subject to state notices of violation of emissions limits at the plant, and is under pressure from citizen groups to prepare residents for possible emergencies and improve its communications with them.

Among the charges under the new intent to sue is that the plant exceeded state limits on VOCs for 12-month periods ending in September, October and November. In September alone, it emitted almost as much as it is permitted for the whole 12-month period. 

Thus, it is almost certain that Shell will continue to violate this VOC limit in each 12-month period until at least September 2023,“ the letter said. 

It noted that each day of a 12-month period in which each pollutant exceeds the state limit constitutes a separate violation with a penalty of up to $117,468 under the Clean Air Act.

“Shell has blown through permit limits in the first few months of operation, putting nearby communities in harm’s way,” said Sarah Kula, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “Shell must be held accountable under the law and take appropriate steps to prevent illegal pollution going forward.”

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since its official start of operations less than three months ago, the 386-acre plant on the bank of Ohio River about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh has prompted two notices of violation from regulators and four malfunction reports, fueling the fears of opponents that it will add to air and water pollution in a region that has endured poor air quality for decades.

Since 2012, when it was awarded some $1.6 billion in state tax credits over 25 years, the project has drawn criticism from opponents who say it will contaminate the air with VOCs and particulates while leaking the plastic pellets, called nurdles, into the river and contributing to a worldwide flood of single-use plastics that environmentalists are working to stem.

They also argue that its dependence on fracked natural gas from the nearby Marcellus Shale — one of the world’s biggest reserves — is boosting production of heat-trapping methane at a time when global  authorities, including the Biden Administration, are trying to limit rising global temperatures to avert the worst effects of climate change.

The plant uses ethane from the Marcellus Shale to “crack“ into ethylene, a building block for plastics.

On Dec. 14, the DEP issued a Notice of Violation to the plant for emitting more than the permitted quantity of volatile organic compounds for 12-month periods ending in September and October, respectively—before the plant was officially open.

A week earlier, the agency issued another violation to Shell for hiring a contractor to clear asbestos from its site — where a zinc smelter previously stood — without first informing the DEP.

Before the official start of operations, the plant drew eight notices during 2022 for air and water violations, as well as for failing to comply with a required procedure when cleaning a storage tank.

The period since the opening has also been marked by four equipment malfunctions, incidents where Shell has informed regulators, as required, that some piece of equipment has not worked properly.

The malfunctions included excess emissions“ as a result of flaring from the plant’s ethane cracker unit on Nov. 15 and Nov. 16. Those emissions included 721 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 2.1 tons of VOCs and 0.35 tons of nitrogen oxides, according to a letter from Shell to the DEP on Dec. 16.

Shell said its new system helped to explain the emission of VOCs above permitted levels during the 12-month periods to September and October.

VOCs are found in thousands of products such as paints, pesticides and cosmetics, and are linked to illnesses ranging from nausea and allergies to, in the case of very high exposures, damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, according to health authorities.

Several factors contributed to the additional flaring during startup, all related to the complexities of commissioning brand new systems and equipment that make up one of the largest construction projects in the country,“ Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said on Tuesday. Though flaring acts as a contingency to combust gases before they enter the atmosphere, no violation is acceptable. 

“We will continue to report out and comply with all regulations while also applying lessons learned and best practices to ensure our operations have no negative impact on people or the environment, “ he said. 

Anais Peterson, a petrochemicals campaigner for Earthworks, a nonprofit that works to prevent destruction from the extractive industries, said the plant’s performance since opening has confirmed its opponents’ fears, especially because of an orange glow that has lit up the night sky around the plant since it began operations.

“We knew it was going to be bad, given Shell’s record, but it was difficult to understand just how bad it would be until we started living in it,“ she said in an interview with Inside Climate News. “The orange glow was totally unexpected and has had a really draining impact on residents. Shell has been unresponsive.“

Controls on illumination of the night sky is one of six demands on a “to-do“ list that campaigners representing Beaver County residents and environmental groups have sent to Shell. Their demands include reducing overhead lighting, and providing shielding, filtering and energy-conserving technology, as recommended by the International Dark Sky Association.

Peterson said the night-sky glow has disturbed residents but it is unclear whether it is caused by flaring or something else. “The first time people saw it, they thought the plant was on fire, “ she said.

Other items on the campaigners’ list — which Peterson said has been sent to Shell three times — include training residents to respond safely to emergencies, immediately notifying them and government agencies of incidents using social media and local news outlets and using the best-available monitoring technology to detect VOCs and other pollutants.

The advocates also call on Shell to “address the plastic crisis“ by publicizing the effects of the plant’s product, and to “support climate action“ by using renewable energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and rejecting what they call false solutions such as blue hydrogen and carbon capture.

Smith, the Shell spokesman, said the company already meets many of the demands on the list. “Many of the suggestions within are consistent with best practices already being implemented at SPM,” he said.

At a Feb. 1 meeting of Eyes on Shell, a community group that publishes the list, Peterson said both Shell and the DEP have been more responsive to public complaints about air quality, foam on the water next to the plant and the orange glow in the night sky after members of the public reported the conditions.

“We had a really strong response; our watchdogs were immediately on top of it when that happened, “ she said at the online meeting that was attended by about 75 people. 

An audible boom in the vicinity of the plant generated public fears that Shell was responsible, Peterson said. The company later posted on its Facebook page denying responsibility but did so only after about nine hours, and after being urged by campaigners to make a statement, Peterson said.

She said the Eyes on Shell group received about 25 reports about Shell-related events, many of them prompted by flaring, during January. “It’s so clear that anything Shell or DEP does is because watchdogs are on top of it, taking pictures, sending videos, “ she said.

Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a nonprofit that advocates for air-quality improvements in southwest Pennsylvania, said the environmental record of the Shell plant so far is regrettable but expected.

“We are off to a rough start, and sadly, a rough start was anticipated,” he said.  “Accountability actions are needed to bolster a sense of confidence that the public health and environment of people in the Ohio River Valley is being protected from harm.”

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

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