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In Beaver County, A Mix Of Hope And Fear Over Startup Of Shell’S Ethane Cracker – The Allegheny Front

Joyce and Don Hanshaw can see the Shell ethane cracker from their backyard in Vanport, Pa. Photo: Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front

By Reporterwings.org

June 12, 2022

For decades, steel mills lined Western Pennsylvania’s rivers, and though they belched out soot and pollution, they put food on the table. It’s a familiar story, nowhere more true than in beaver county, says Skip Homan.

“Steel in Beaver County was the major source of employment,” said Homan, vice-chair of the Beaver County Partnership for Community and Economic Development. A former CEO of the engineering firm Michael Baker, Homan said when steel left in the 1980s, the county’s tax base tanked, as did its population and school enrollments.

But then came Shell. In 2012, the company said it was considering Beaver County as a potential site for an ethane cracker, a massive chemical plant that would turn natural gas produced from the region’s fracking industry into 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets a year. In 2016, it committed to the site.

Homan sensed a big moment coming. “I was thrilled,” he said. “Before Shell, Beaver County was really not recognized, not known. Now Beaver County is on the map.”

The plant received the largest subsidy ever in Pennsylvania – a $1.65 billion dollar tax credit over 25 years. Homan says he didn’t have a problem with that – if that’s what it took to lure the plant to Beaver County.

Now the site, which stretches along about a mile of riverfront, is nearly built. Shell spokesman Curtis Thomas said the workforce is down to 3,000, and has been testing equipment to begin operations this summer.

At its peak, construction of the plant employed 8,500 workers. Many were from out-of-state, and they crowded the county’s hotels, restaurants, and rental apartments. When it opens it will have 600 permanent jobs.

Hopes and fears

Since the company’s plans were first announced, the plant has conjured hope as well as fear for many in Beaver County. Some hope for good jobs, while others fear a return of toxic skies and waterways that plagued western Pennsylvania during the steel era.

Count Skip Homan in the former group.

“I see the light [of the plant] at night from my house,” said Homan. “And no, I’m not bothered…I have a high degree of confidence that Shell will be good for the environment here.”

Joyce and Don Hanshaw
But some are not so happy. Joyce Hanshaw lives across the Ohio River from the plant in the town of Vanport.

She and her husband Don, a retired steelworker, used to have bonfires in their backyard but stopped since the plant was constructed.

“The whole area here is all lit up all the time. So there’s no really no nighttime here,” said Hanshaw, 72.

Hanshaw and her husband bought their house in 1973. She doesn’t want to move, mostly because the house is paid off. She says she’s already heard strange sounds coming from the plant.

“You heard this whoooo – and didn’t even know what the devil was going on. I thought it was a train coming down the street,” she said.

Hanshaw, who uses an inhaler to help her breathe because of a lung condition, says she’s worried about what kind of health problems the plant might cause when it goes online.

“I’m just wondering for health reasons,” Hanshaw said, “what’s it going to be like?”

In Beaver County, a mix of hope and fear over startup of Shell’s ethane cracker – The Allegheny Front

Worries about air pollution

Hanshaw is not alone. A couple of miles away lives Dave Blair. He’s a retired shop teacher formally from Bedford County. He built a new house in Monaca, about two miles from the plant, so that he and his wife could be close to their adult children, who live in Beaver County.

Blair has asthma. He wears a dust mask whenever he’s in his basement wood shop. Chemicals in wood finishing products give him the biggest reactions, he says. He manages the condition with medication.

“I get two shots every ten days and then I take an inhaler that costs me $90 a month,” Blair said.

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