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Developers say cracker plant in Beaver County will be economic boost needed for region

Developers say cracker plant in Beaver County will be economic boost needed for region
Developers say cracker plant in Beaver County will be economic boost needed for region 03:33

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — After a decade of planning and construction, Shell's cracker plant in Beaver County is finally set to open later this summer.

And while some say it's going to have a negative impact on the local environment, others say it's a long-awaited economic boost and could be the start of the region's long-awaited manufacturing rebirth.

Local developer Chuck Betters still remembers the mornings his father and grandfather before him went off to work at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company's Aliquippa Works, which at one time, was the largest steel mill in the world.

When the mill closed, Betters bought the land where it stood with a dream of industrial prosperity returning.

"That's where 17,000 people used to come to work," Betters said. "I'd love to see this valley come back to life."

From those humble beginnings, Betters has become the largest real estate developer in the Ohio Valley, with more than a thousand acres of what he calls "dirty, nasty" industrial waterfront land.

And he's pinning his hopes on transforming those sites on Shell's multi-billion dollar cracker plant, which is scheduled to come online later this summer.

"It's been the best thing to happen in this county since the mills shut down," Betters said.

During its five-year construction, the cracker plant has employed close to 6,000 workers and will now need about 600 others to run it.

But economic boosters hope it will spawn a whole new petrochemical industry in the Ohio Valley. The plant will produce 3.5 billion pounds of plastic pallets a year and Betters and others are trying to lure other manufacturing companies here, touting the same attributes that made the region an industrial powerhouse.

"Currently, we're working on a plan to bring rail into here, so you'll have the three components - river, rail and highway," Betters said.

But to some, the pursuit of re-industrialization is a misguided step into the past. The air and the water are cleaner now and they'd rather not return to a carbon-based economy, especially one built on plastic, which is now clogging oceans and landfills around the world with discarded waste.

"I don't think we're creating a new industry. We're reviving an old industry in the sense that we're reviving unhealthy factories," Industry Borough resident Regina Hart said.

Betters has a different vision.

"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," he said.

Thus far, the cracker plant has underwhelmed in terms of spinoff development, but Better attributes that to the pandemic and uncertainty over the economy. Lately, he said there's been a surge of interest.

"The last three or four months, I've had more interest in showing real estate than probably the last three or four years," Betters said.

Keeping his dream alive.

KDKA-TV's Andy Sheehan: "Is it going to happen?"

Betters: "God willing it will before I die."

When the cracker plant comes online later this summer, boosters will tout its economic potential while at the same time environmentalists keep a close watch, as the largest economic development in a generation will continue to be the focus of this ongoing debate.

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