This community will get $5M due to Shell’s petrochemical pollution — just don’t call it charity

PITTSBURGH — Community advocates tasked with spending $5 million in fines from Shell’s industrial air pollution are determined not to let the oil company take credit for the projects.

In a region long plagued by industrial pollution, community advocates say weak enforcement leads to a “pay-to-pollute” model, where it’s cheaper for companies to pay fines for polluting than to clean up operations.

Now some of those same advocates — tasked with spending pollution fine money to better their communities’ health — want to hold polluters accountable.

Last November, Shell started up its massive new ethane cracker, which converts fracked ethane gas into tiny plastic pellets, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh.

By December, the plant had already exceeded its air pollution permit for the year.

Emissions from the plant include particulate matter pollution, volatile organic compounds like benzene and toluene, and a long list of other hazardous air pollutants. Exposure to these emissions is linked to brain, liver and kidney issues; cardiovascular and respiratory disease; miscarriages and birth defects; and childhood leukemia and cancer.

In May, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro reached a settlement agreement with Shell to pay $10 million for clean air violations. Under the agreement, half of that money must be used for projects to mitigate the pollution’s impact on local communities.

“We’re glad this money is going to the community, but there are still some pay-to-pollute aspects in this agreement,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based collaborative of more than 50 regional and national environmental advocacy groups, told Environmental Health News (EHN). “The settlement agreement seems to anticipate that Shell’s pollution will continue through the end of the year. We’d like to see more direct requirements in the settlement agreement to mitigate, prevent and prohibit ongoing air pollution.”

In recent years, another major law-breaker in the area, US Steel, has paid fines for clean air law violations at its Clairton Coke Works plant into a community trust. But those funds have largely been used for things like park upgrades, road paving and new municipal vehicles. Advocates say US Steel gets credit for funding such community initiatives — a pattern they’re determined to avoid repeating with Shell.

“There’s nothing inherently bad about those projects, but those funds are not being used to mitigate air pollution and protect public health the way they could be,” Mehalik said. “That fund is viewed almost as a charitable donation fund to under-resourced communities, even though it only exists because the company is causing harm in those communities.”

At a public meeting about how to spend Shell’s fine money in July, people raised numerous concerns about repeating the perceived mistakes made with US Steel’s fine money (decisions made by the Allegheny County Health Department, which oversees air quality in Pittsburgh). A 17-member steering committee, made up of community advocates, decided that projects from Shell’s community fund must go toward providing environmental, health or quality of life benefits in Beaver County.

In the official protocol for the projects, the group also mandated that any public discussion about projects funded by the fine money must include a statement saying the project was funded with fines from Shell due to “violations of the Air Pollution Control Act and regulations.”

advocacy group Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community.

“So many of the falsehoods about this industry come from what is not said, rather than what is said,” Terrie Baumgardner, a member of the steering committee and an outreach coordinator for the Clean Air Council, told EHN. She pointed out that Shell has previously made numerous donations to community projects unrelated to air pollution in Beaver County and that other oil and gas companies regularly donate to municipal projects and historical societies. She also pointed to Norfolk Southern paying for admission to carnival rides at a community fair in East Palestine in the wake of its catastrophic train derailment in the town.

“People who aren’t informed about the bigger picture just see things like that and say, ‘Oh, aren’t they wonderful,’ Baumgardner said. “We hope this messaging reminds people that these fines were a penalty for Shell breaking the law and harming the community’s health, not a charitable donation.”

Other requirements for the funds include initiating at least one independent air monitoring project, and at least one project focused on community education and engagement related to air pollution. All of the projects must involve organizations within Beaver County. As a next step, organizations interested in pursuing projects will submit applications and another committee will be assembled to decide which projects will be funded.

No projects have been formally proposed yet, but members have discussed ideas like future lung-health screenings for residents, a digital billboard displaying real-time air quality information, support for an already-underway asthma registry and solar energy and electric vehicle projects that could help reduce local air pollution from other sources.

Shell did not respond to requests for comment about the fund.

Regulating environmental justice

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has a complicated relationship with the communities it’s tasked with protecting. In the past, residents of some of the state’s most heavily fracked regions have bitterly joked that the agency’s acronym, DEP, actually stands for “Don’t Expect Protection.”

The agency, under new leadership following the inauguration of Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro in January and the appointment of Rich Negrin as Department Secretary in June, hopes to change that — particularly among members of the state’s environmental justice communities.

Within 15 miles of Shell’s plant, there are at least eight communities where residents are more than 30% non-white or more than 20% of people live in poverty, making them environmental justice communities under state law. Environmental justice communities are supposed to get extra consideration during permitting for polluting facilities, but the agency didn’t meet with members of these communities while permitting Shell’s ethane cracker because the facility wasn’t within their geographic boundaries. Those policies are now being reconsidered.

“As DEP updates environmental justice policies, and even how we characterize environmental justice areas, the goal remains to ensure that Pennsylvanians have a voice in the decision-making process,” Fernando Treviño, the agency’s newly-appointed special deputy secretary for the Office of Environmental Justice, told EHN in an email. “DEP is working to do that on the front end at the permit application review stage, and right here in our communities where people have been impacted.”

Before the community meeting on Shell’s fine money, Treviño spent weeks meeting one-on-one with locals to hear concerns about the plant’s pollution and their hopes for the funds. He mostly listened, but he also told people he wanted to help restore the community’s trust in their state regulators.

“In many ways DEP is forging new relationships in this community, by meeting with budding grassroots organizations, established institutions, and community advocates and leaders,” Treviño said. “What we’re trying to show here is that DEP’s enforcement goes beyond fines… That’s an important part of our toolbox, but we’re re-thinking this model.”

The agency is using these efforts in Beaver County as a blueprint for other communities facing industrial pollution, with plans to secure similar community-run mitigation funds when the law allows it. The agency is also working to post additional emissions data online, require demonstrations that pollution controls are functioning properly, and mandate repairs to facilities like Shell’s ethane cracker, according to Treviño.

While there’s still frustration that the fines levied against Shell may not be large enough to actually deter pollution violations, community advocates expressed gratitude for these new initiatives.

“This whole process was very transparent and open to community participation,” said Mehalik, the director of the Breathe Project. “That’s a big, transformative change at the DEP’s environmental justice office; and it’s a very welcome change.”