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State investigating odor event at Shell ethane cracker

Shell's ethane cracker in June 2022.
Reid R. Frazier
The Allegheny Front
Shell's ethane cracker in June 2022.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is investigating a release of odors from Shell’s Beaver County ethane cracker last week.

Shell reported on Facebook Wednesday the odor came from its wastewater treatment facility, and said the smell could be detected outside of the facility’s boundaries.

“Depending on wind direction, the odor was detected in certain areas offsite as well. We are working to resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” the company said.

Under the facility’s state air permit, the plant is not allowed to release “malodorous air contaminants” outside of the company’s property line.

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Curtis Thomas, a spokesman for the company, said this happened after the company drained a tank for scheduled maintenance during a plant shutdown. As a result, he said, “a watery oil mix” entered the facility’s wastewater treatment plant, causing the release of odor. The company added water to the oily mix “with the goal of minimizing the odor,” Thomas said.

The area nearby was closed off, he said, “and normal work that would have been done in the area was paused.” Contrary to statements on social media, there was no plant-wide evacuation, and no release of the carcinogen benzene, Thomas said, in an email.

Smells “like burning gas and maple syrup”

Lexy Stawick of the nearby town of Beaver said her 7-year-old daughter first smelled the odor when she went outside before school on Wednesday morning.

“She just went out in the backyard to get her shoes and she came in and told me it smells really bad outside,” Stawick said. “And she asked me to come outside to smell it, and it smelled like someone had come into our backyard and just like, doused it in gasoline. It reeked of gas.”

Rosemary Rush, of Brighton, said her 8-year-old son first alerted her to the smell when she rolled the windows down while driving him to school in Beaver Wednesday morning.

“He was like, ‘Mom, what is that smell? It smells so bad.’ And I didn’t really think anything of it at first, but we literally could not keep the window down,” she said. “I was like instantly nauseous, instantly had a headache.”

Rush said she drove to different spots in Beaver to see if the smell, which she described as “like burning gas and maple syrup mixed together” was still present, and it was.

“It was like this heavy, thick, almost like a cloud of something that I was breathing in that I could feel in my throat,” she said.

DEP responds

DEP spokeswoman Lauren Camarda said agency personnel were at the plant Wednesday and Thursday investigating after getting numerous reports from the public and from Shell about the event.

The DEP staff documented “on-and-offsite odors, which Shell reports were caused by oil entering its wastewater treatment plant,” Camarda said.

Camarda said Shell had reported higher than normal readings for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at the company’s fence line air monitors, and that local ambient air pollution readings reported higher than normal levels of particulate matter. But Camarda said these levels did not exceed federal health-based air standards. Camarda said the agency “has no evidence to date of any unpermitted materials being discharged to a waterway” from the plant.

Problems at the plant

The event follows a rocky few months of operations at the plant, which began in November, and includes a state notice of violation in December for high levels of flaring during startup operations. Three other recent violations in April were for visible emissions from flaring in February; exceeding its 12-month limit of nitrogen oxide emissions in January; and exceeding its 12-month emissions limits of both nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide emissions in February. In March, a compressor failure led to another bright flaring event at the plant.

Stawick said she is worried about the overall impact of the plant’s emissions on her children, 5 and 7.

“It seems like Shell is having an issue almost monthly. So I worry about what that’s doing to our air, what our kids are being exposed to,” she said.

The plant, which makes plastic out of ethane, a component of natural gas abundant in the Utica and Marcellus shale, opened in November and received a $1.65 billion Pennsylvania tax credit, the largest in state history.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.

Reid R. Frazier covers energy for The Allegheny Front. His work has taken him as far away as Texas and Louisiana to report on the petrochemical industry and as close to home as Greene County, Pennsylvania to cover the shale gas boom. His award-winning work has also aired on NPR, Marketplace and other outlets. Reid is currently contributing to StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY covering the Commonwealth's energy economy. Email: