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KDKA Investigates: Will Shell's cracker plant be an economic boom or environmental bust?

KDKA Investigates: Will Shell's cracker plant be an economic boom or environmental bust?
KDKA Investigates: Will Shell's cracker plant be an economic boom or environmental bust? 04:39

POTTER TOWNSHIP, Pa. (KDKA) - After a decade of planning and construction, Shell's cracker plant in Beaver County is finally about to open.

While some say it's already created jobs and is poised to bring an even bigger economic boom to the region, others worry it'll be nothing more than an environmental bust.

If you haven't yet seen the cracker plant for yourself, it's worth a trip to Potter Township just to get an idea of the sheer size of it. The mammoth, multi-billion dollar complex stretches for a mile along the banks of the Ohio River, covering 780 acres of repurposed land with an ominous looking metal fortress of towers, tanks and pipes.

It took 6,000 construction workers to build it, and when it becomes operational later this summer, it'll need 600 workers to run it. But its economic impact may be far greater.

It's the largest private development in the region since Andrew Carnegie built the steel mills, and many hope it will spawn a new industry to fill the void shuttered steel plants have left behind. 

Developer Chuck Betters says it's a long time coming.

"To see those tens of thousands of jobs that were lost come back, good-paying union jobs with benefits, like the mills used to have," Betters said.

But to others the cracker plant is a backward step into the past, inviting another polluting industry into a river valley that is finally coming back environmentally with fish and wildlife not seen there in more than a century.

"You can't understate the negative impact economically of workers who develop respiratory disease or cardiovascular disease. All of those risks go up when you turn on the switch on a major plant like we're seeing on this Shell plant," said Matthew Mehalik with Breathe Project.

The cracker plant is married to another industry that has invited the same debate, the shale gas industry, which for the past decade and a half has drilled and fracked the Marcellus Shale in Beaver County and other nearby counties.

Shell has constructed a 97-mile pipeline to deliver the shale gas ethane to the site where it will be transformed, or cracked, into ethylene and then polyethylene -- the building blocks of plastics.

In the course of a year, Shell says it will produce a staggering 3.5 billion pounds of small plastic pellets that can then be shipped to companies manufacturing anything from plastic bags and bottles to diapers, toys and housewares.

Leaders in Beaver County hope many of those companies decide to move here but say, regardless, the cracker plant has already been an economic shot in the arm.

"The change has been absolutely dramatic. Beaver County is far more vibrant. People know about Beaver County all over the world. The problem is finding people for jobs. There are so many jobs and job opportunities in Beaver County. The problem is filling them," said Charles "Skip" Homan with Beaver Community and Economic Growth.

But environmentalists say these gains will be short-lived now that the construction workers are packing up.

They say the region is unwisely hitching its wagon to plastics during a worldwide outcry against a glut of plastic waste.

"Ninety percent is not recycled," Mehalik said. "It ends up in our water supplies, it ends up in the ocean, and it ends up in the air. They've detected micro-plastics in the snow in Antarctica. The answer is not more plastic. We don't need the plastics we have. So the move to double down is not a good economic plan."

Wednesday night on KDKA News at 6 p.m., we'll get more in-depth into the environmental impact of the cracker plant. We'll talk to local environmentalists about their concerns about emissions, and we'll talk with Shell about the company's efforts to address those concerns.

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