Shell Polymers Monaca executives responded to questions regarding the environmental performance of the Beaver County petrochemical facility in its first six months of operation. They apologized for an odor which traveled outside the plant, and for the inadvertent spillage of benzene earlier this month.
This 90-minute virtual session was the first public meeting in which Shell representatives answered questions. Many of these questions were critical, focusing on Shell's (NYSE: SHEL), its flaring and emission problems, as well as the level of concern that neighbors should feel about the situation. Shell executives provided additional details on the April 11, benzene and odor emission as well as the emergency response.
Shell's plant, which has been operating since November, has received 11 violations notices from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection since September 1. These were primarily for exceeding the monthly emission limit on a rolling 12-month basis, and for unplanned flaring. This included a flare that was highly visible over the Potter Township Facility. Shell is temporarily closing the plant while it upgrades the flaring system, wastewater treatment systems and other systems.
The questions were direct and to the point.
Bill Watson, Shell Polymers Monaca's General Manager, said that "there are many factors that contributed to the increased flaring, which caused the extra exceedances. This includes temporary startup activities, equipment shakedown, and again, unforeseen and unpredictability circumstances that arose because of the complexity and size of this project and site." Watson noted that the site was one of the largest industrial complexes in the United States.
Watson stated that "no violation is acceptable" and that the company would continue to be transparent and report to authorities, as well as comply with all regulations, while applying best practices and learnings to ensure its operations had no negative impact on both people and the environment.
Shell admitted that monitors in the plant detected benzene - a chemical that can cause serious health problems with prolonged or concentrated exposure. The odor, however, was detected outside of the plant during the April 11 incident. Hydrocarbons accidentally sent into the wastewater system caused both the odor and the emissions.
Watson apologized for the "odor event" and any concern it may have caused in the community.
Watson stated that there were no adverse impacts on the workers or community members. Ben Roussel, emergency services coordinator, confirmed that the site was not evacuated nor required to shelter in place. Shell implemented an intensive air monitoring system immediately, using Shell's passive and continuous monitoring system as well as third-party response teams and Shell specialists. Data was also reviewed independently.
Shell also brought in an outside expert, Christopher Kuhlman. He is a senior toxicologist from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health.
He said that the air monitoring readings taken in areas downwind of the facility did not exceed occupational exposure limits. These limits were established as health protective limits for worker exposures eight hours per day, forty hours per week. He said that the exposures would not cause "transient irritation or discomfort" and that offsite monitoring showed no long-term effects.
Kuhlman said that odors were also reported in the locality.
He said that odors could alert us to airborne chemicals, but smelling one does not mean there is a dangerous amount in the air. "Most substances which cause odors outdoors do not have levels that could cause serious injuries or long-term effects on health." He said that strong odors may cause headaches, congestion and sore throats. However, these symptoms will disappear once the odor is gone or when someone moves away.
Watson and Curtis Thomas (Shell's adviser on external affairs) promised more transparency and quicker communication with the community in the event of a problem at the plant. Watson stated that many employees of the plant live in the local community, and some were even raised there. It is important to maintain trust and build it by being honest about any issues that arise.