PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Shell's cracker plant in Beaver County is finally set to open later this summer.
And while some say it's a long-awaited economic boost for the region, others say it's going to be an environmental bust. KDKA-TV recently took a trip down the Ohio River with captain Evan Clark of Three Rivers Waterkeeper to the plant site in Potter Township.
"We're out here looking to protect drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters," Clark SAID.
Before Shell flips the switch, Clark has been testing the waters for chemicals associated with the plant. He will establish baseline readings against which it'll be determined if the plant is polluting the river, which has made a comeback with fish and wildlife not seen here in generations.
"It helps the public because we all want clean water," Clark said. "About 5 million people get their drinking water from this river and many others depend on it for so many other things, recreation. We want to do what we can to protect this invaluable resource."
The cracker plant, which will convert shale gas ethane into billions of pounds of plastic pellets, has raised alarms in the environmental community, which predicts major impacts on the water and air.
State regulators currently permit some levels of shale gas ethane into the river and emissions of carbon dioxide into the air. But Carnegie Mellon University Professor Matthew Mehalik, who is also part of Breathe Project, warns of volatile organic compounds that can form ozone.
He calls the cracker plant a step backward into the past.
"Anytime you add to the airshed pollutants, it takes us backwards," Mehalik said. "There are negative health impacts because we will be loading up our atmosphere with more pollutants that we currently don't have."
However, environmentalists concede the emissions will not be on the scale of particulate pollution of our industrial past and sites like U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works.
Shell says the emissions will be minimal and most of it will be captured on-site with new technologies.
In a statement, Curtis Thomas with corporate relations for Shell Polymers said, "With respect to air quality, this means designing, building and operating our petrochemical complex to minimize air emissions. The facility will meet all applicable federal and state air emission standards established to protect public health and the environment."
"I believe Shell will be a very good neighbor, far superior to the industry in Beaver County that we have known for the past 50 years," said Charles Homan with Beaver Community and Economic Growth. "I think that they are a very responsible company. I think the technology that they are using is the most advanced in the world for environmental controls and productions."
Still, nearby resident and recreational kayaker Regina Hart doesn't believe the plant's emissions will be all that benign.
"People have reported earlier this year, there was a significant emission that everyone said smelled like maple syrup. But obviously, it's not as innocuous as that. Folks are keeping journals as to unusual smells that we might encounter and not just because they are smells, but because the smells may come with hazardous material that we shouldn't be breathing," said Hart.
For his part, Clark will continue testing and monitoring in the area. And while he reserves his own opinion, Clark sees himself as a kind of referee.
"We live in a world where this industry's going to happen. It will negatively impact some things and positively affect other things, and we want to do our part to ensure that it's measured and we're going to do our part to protect this water," Clark saod.]
While Shell maintains that state-of-the-art technologies will capture most of the emissions on site, environmentalists say they'll still be keeping a close watch.
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