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'Major Step Forward' For Possible Beaver County Shell Petrochemical Plant

Environmental permits issued to Royal Dutch Shell could pave the way for construction of the proposed Appalachia ethane cracker in Beaver County, the Department of Environmental Protection said Monday. 

Shell officials have been looking at and preparing the site for more than two years. If built, the plant would process gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations into ethylene, which is used in plastics. The facility would also create some 400 permanent jobs.

“This is one of several permits that we issued this week that essentially are required for the next phase of the site preparation work at the former Horsehead zinc smelter site,” said DEP Spokesman John Poister.

Shell closed on the $13.5 million purchase from Horsehead Holdings Corp. last week, almost three years since company officials first announced their interest. The multibillion-dollar plant would flank the Ohio River in Potter.

Poister said the permits require Shell employ "the best technology that’s available” to minimize emission rates and offset air contaminates. Shell officials could not be reached for immediate comment, but have said a firm commitment could be years away.

State Rep. Rob Matzie (D-Ambridge), who represents the area, said Monday he feels cautiously optimistic about the project's future.

"Shell has consistently demonstrated, through action and investment, their commitment to making this plant a reality," he said. "The governor has been steadfast in his support. Although much is left to be done, we will continue to work with Shell towards a positive conclusion.”

Local officials have also been largely supportive of the plan, citing a potential 10,000 jobs during peak construction. 

"I can assure the vast majority of residents want to see a cracker plant in operation,” Beaver County commissioner Dennis Nichols said in May. “We all want clean water and clean air. But we want these things in the context of good-paying jobs and an economic future for our region."

DEP officials issued two five-year wastewater and stormwater discharge permits, all part of ongoing clean-up efforts to rehabilitate the former zinc smelting plant.

“It involves, in a couple of cases, putting culverts over two streams to protect them from any runoff and achieving a level of remediation on the site that will allow them to take the next step and move into construction,” Poister said.

The land will benefit even if Shell decides not to build, he said.

“It was a contaminated zinc smelter site that would have otherwise just been there and been a blight on the area,” he said. “It’ll be stabilized, it’ll be monitored and it will be controlled with appropriate environmental controls so that even if Shell decides not to do anything, there can be possible future development.”

Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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