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Behind the scenes: How a plastics factory plagued a Pennsylvania county

In 2022, oil and gas company Shell began operations at its new plastics plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania, a city in Beaver County about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

The ethane cracker plant was expected to produce millions of tons of plastic at its site on the Ohio River and promised to bring money and jobs to Beaver County, a charming area where Hallmark has filmed exteriors to depict the idyllic towns often seen Christmas sees classics.

But plastic isn't the only thing produced at this facility: In recent years, harmful chemicals, incessant noise and flashing lights in the middle of the night have plagued residents.

Advocacy groups and locals have filed lawsuits against Shell over these disruptions, and some have decided to leave the county altogether. Researchers fear the long-term climate, health and environmental impacts of the petrochemical plant, which emits methane and millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year.

My colleague Kiley Bense (yes, our names are both Kiley and we are both from Pennsylvania) has reported extensively on this topic; She visited and reported on the power plant while it was still under construction in 2022. Recently, Kiley spoke with some people in Beaver County about their experiences with the power plant, which you can read about in an article she published earlier this week. I asked Kiley to tell me more about how she followed this story and what she learned from reporting it.

How did you find out about this situation?

In 2022, I visited the Shell factory while it was still under construction. On a sultry spring day, I stood on an overlook near a new townhouse project and a cancer center to get a better look at the Shell site, which stretches across hundreds of acres along the Ohio River. At the time, most people who lived near the plant were not worried about what would happen when the plant began operating.

However, there were some residents and environmentalists who were concerned about the potential impact on the environment and public health. Now that the Shell plant has been online for more than a year, I wanted to investigate whether any of these fears have come true. I also wanted to explore a larger question: What will Shell's presence mean for this part of western Pennsylvania in the long term?

How did you cover the story?

Since I had covered the Shell plant before, I decided to re-interview some of my sources from the first story to see if their views had changed since 2022. I also wanted to talk to residents who live near the plant so that I could understand what this experience was like and how and if the plant had affected their daily lives. I found that for many of them, the light, noise and air pollution of the facility had affected their sleep, quality of life and peace of mind.

The other aspect of the reporting was to review documents and records related to the design and operation of the Shell plant, from research studies to lawsuits, notices of violations and incident reports.

Is there anything that didn't make it into the story that you can share?

One thing that didn't make it into my story is the many resonances between the complaints I heard from Pennsylvanians who live near the Shell plant in Beaver County and Texans who live near Shell's Deer Park Chemicals location live.

Environmental activists with the Houston-based organization Fenceline Watch told me that they also found it difficult to get real-time information from Shell about what was happening on the ground. This also applies to emergencies, which those closely monitoring the Pennsylvania plant fear could happen there too.

Another thing I came across is Shell Polymers Monaca's Google reviews, which have become a forum for local residents to voice their complaints about the plant. While some people offered their support for the facility, most reviews were negative and reflected what I heard from the residents I interviewed.

“Maybe just turn off the lights. “You don’t have to be seen from space,” one reviewer wrote. “I'm not going to talk about the environment, but this place is more of a nuisance and an eyesore than anything else.”

Another reviewer also complained about light pollution and raised the possibility of moving: “It hasn't been dark in my house since construction began, and it will never be again.” Buses have clogged and torn up our streets for years, and the problem was never fixed. We’re talking about moving, what a shame.”

What happens next? What should you pay attention to?

In February, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter to Shell reminding the company that it must submit an application for a Title V operating permit within 120 days of receiving the letter.

Title V permits are issued under the Clean Air Act and govern the facility's obligations to control its air pollution. Environmental advocates in the area hope DEP will open the process for public comment so residents have a chance to weigh in on the limits set by the new permit.

For Beaver County residents, especially those who live near the plant, there is a lot at stake in this bureaucratic process — and how well the permit is ultimately enforced.

More top climate news

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Overall, climate issues are appearing more frequently on screens However, in some cases, climate avoidance in popular films continues socially organized denial of the crisis, according to the study by Colby College and nonprofit consulting firm Good Energy. Los Angeles Times columnist Sammy Roth wrote about how the growing movement in Hollywood to put climate change on screen could help raise awareness among viewers.

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Meanwhile, certain common medications such as diuretics and beta-blockers are used could make people more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses on a physiological level, writes Charlotte Hiu for Scientific American. This is partly because some medications interfere with the binding process between cells and a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which helps the body adapt to different temperatures.

Anna Harden

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