A proposal by Shell Chemical to build a petrochemical plant in western Pennsylvania drew praise from those who say it will boost the region's economy, and criticism from those who fear it will harm the environment, despite assurances from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"I cannot believe this is happening," the Rev. James Hamilton of Ambridge said about plans for the so-called "cracker" plant in Potter Township, Beaver County. "We were told by the cigarette industry that everything is wonderful, everything is safe."
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Hamilton's comments came during a two-hour public hearing and question-and-answer session Tuesday night on Shell's plans for the plant on the site of a former zinc smelter once owned by Horsehead Corp., about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. That plant closed in 2011 and the new operation Shell proposes would pipe ethane from Marcellus Shale natural gas wells to the plant, where the liquid fuel would be chemically "cracked" so it can be converted to polyethylene pellets used to make various plastic products.
The ethane is now sent to plants near the Gulf of Mexico for processing. Shell officials said the plant would create 400 to 500 operational jobs and thousands of construction jobs in the meantime.
Mark Gorog, an environmental engineering manager for the DEP, told residents that Shell would seek emissions credits for the nitrogen oxide and other pollutants the plant could produce. If those credits didn't come from other Pittsburgh-area companies, the overall air regional quality wouldn't suffer, Gorog explained.
That didn't satisfy Celia Janosik, a resident of nearby Economy. She said it was "reprehensible" that Shell might be permitted to purchase the credits from manufacturers nowhere near western Pennsylvania that would give the cracker plant a license to produce pollution.
But those who criticized the plan were outnumbered by residents, union officials and business boosters who believe it will be good for the area.
"This proposed project will not only help Beaver County, but it will transform the region for years to come," said Larry Nelson, an official with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 712 and the Beaver County Building and Construction Trades Council.
Although Shell has purchased the former zinc plant and begun pursuing regulatory approvals for the plant, the company said it may take years to decide whether to finally build it.