After a two-year legal battle, Shell Chemical Co. has agreed to install continuous air monitors on the fenceline of its petrochemical complex in Beaver County.
The chemical company reached a settlement with two environmental groups, Clean Air Council and Environmental Integrity Project, to provide publicly-available data on what chemicals will be leaving the sprawling Potter Township site where Shell is building an ethane cracker, three other chemical units, a power plant and a rail yard.
The environmental groups appealed an air permit that state regulators granted to Shell in 2015 and asked for the company to commit to several air monitoring measures aimed at keeping hazardous air pollutants and other volatile organic compounds in check.
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“This is a facility that’s gonna be scrutinized extremely carefully,” said Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council who worked on the lawsuit. “If you could see my face, you’d see a big, huge grin.”
The fenceline monitoring issue has become a rallying cry for concerned community members and opponents of the petrochemical plant. For months, Shell officials have been noncommittal about the prospect, saying they are open to the idea but declining to discuss specifics citing ongoing litigation with the environmental groups. In a statement, Shell said it was pleased with the settlement.
As part of the agreement announced on Monday, Shell will begin to monitor for a handful of hazardous pollutants, such as benzene and toluene, shortly after the facility is built.
But the continuous monitors, which will be placed at four locations along the perimeter of the facility, won’t go into effect until after Shell starts up its plant and goes into “normal operation.” That is, emissions from start up operations, which can be high but are temporary and not part of the company’s regulated emissions levels, won’t be captured on the website that Shell has to develop to display its monitoring results.
Once the plant is up and running daily, however, the continuous monitoring system will take readings of volatile organic compounds in the air and report them in five-minute averages.
The settlement establishes “action levels” for those readings. If any monitor exceeds its action level, Shell will launch an investigation and an air sample will be sent to a lab to break down which chemicals were responsible for the alert.
There are also limits on Shell’s use of its flares, which are activated to burn undesired chemicals.
It was important to build in some flexibility into the agreement, Mr. Minott said, and the action levels were a source of a lot of compromise for both sides.
Shell was concerned about setting limits too low, which could result in false positives that unnecessarily alert community members, he recalled. “But we have the opposite concern that we’re going to set the level in such a way that there’ll never be any triggers at all when there is a problem.”
So the two parties built in a mechanism to vary the action levels depending on how many investigations Shell has to perform in the prior year.
For example, if after the first year the company had to investigate 8 events, the thresholds will increase by 10 percent. If its team was called out fewer than 4 times, they will drop by 10 percent.
“This whole effort is an attempt to make sure Shell operates the plant properly all the time,” Mr. Minott said.
Gwen Ottinger, an associate professor at the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Drexel University said “If I were a community person, I would be disappointed.
“It’s a much easier thing to determine whether a facility is operating within its normal parameters than it is to determine whether it’s hurting anyone.”
After reading the settlement, Ms. Ottinger, who has worked with communities fighting for fenceline monitoring systems in Louisiana and California, said it appears to be geared towards helping Shell diagnose and fix leaks as opposed to tackling the health impact that the plant will have on the community.
“How the action levels are determined really matters a lot,” she said. “It’s not clear that action levels are linked to health concerns.”
The Clean Air Council said the action levels came from Shell’s projections of what it will emit during its normal operations and from the company’s health risk assessment.
Mr. Minott is convinced that fenceline monitoring systems, like the one negotiated here, will become standard operating requirements for all large facilities in the country.
“Now, we have that here. We can point to that here,” he said. “I think this is now the model for fenceline monitoring definitely in Pennsylvania and maybe in the U.S.”
Mr. Ottinger agreed that the system is far beyond what most large industrial facilities are required to do.
Shell spokesperson Michael Marr said that “similar fenceline monitoring is used at other facilities” but the company didn’t see a need for it when it filed its permit application “due to the comprehensive internal monitoring Shell incorporated in the design.”
He noted that inside the fence, the company will have several hundred monitors and a leak detection system surveying more than 70,000 components.
The settlement requires Shell to provide fenceline monitoring for five years. After that, Mr. Minott said, the company will need to apply for a new air permit and the process will begin anew.
“One of the things I would recommend to the funding community out of Pittsburgh is that they provide some money to a local group to monitor and explain (the data) to community,” he said. It’s a perfect job for a university, he added.
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.