by Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow
map & analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement
in partnership with the Environmental Integrity Project
On January 18, 2016, Potter Township Supervisors approved conditional use permits for Shell Chemical Appalachia’s proposed ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, PA. A type of petrochemical facility, an ethane cracker uses energy and the by-products of so-called natural gas to make ethylene, a building block of plastics. FracTracker Alliance has produced informative articles on the jobs numbers touted by the industry, and the considerable negative air impacts of the proposed facility. In the first in a series of new articles, we look at the potential hazards of ethane cracker plants in order to begin calculating the risk of a disaster in Beaver County.
As those who stand to be affected by — or make crucial decisions on — the ethane cracker contemplate the potential risks and promised rewards of this massive project, they should also carefully consider what could go wrong. In addition to the serious environmental and human health effects, which might only reveal themselves over time, what acute events, emergencies, and disasters could potentially occur? What is the disaster risk, the potential for “losses, in lives, health status, livelihoods, assets and services,” of this massive petrochemical facility?
Known Ethane Cracker Risks
A well-accepted formula in disaster studies for determining risk, cited by, among others, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), is Disaster Risk = (Hazard x Vulnerability)/Capacity, as defined in the diagram below. In this article, we consider the first of these factors: hazard. Future articles will examine the remaining factors of vulnerability and capacity that are specific to this location and its population.
Applied to Shell’s self-described “world-scale petrochemical project,” it is challenging to quantify the first of these inputs, hazard. Not only would a facility of this size be unprecedented in this region, but Shell has closely controlled the “public” information on the proposed facility. What compounds the uncertainty much further is the fact that the proposed massive cracker plant is a welcome mat for further development in the area—for a complex network of pipelines and infrastructure to support the plant and its related facilities, and for a long-term commitment to continued gas extraction in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.
We can use what we do know about the hazards presented by ethane crackers and nearby existing vulnerabilities to establish some lower limit of risk. Large petrochemical facilities of this type are known to produce sizable unplanned releases of carcinogenic benzene and other toxic pollutants during “plant upsets,” a term that refers to a “shut down because of a mechanical problem, power outage or some other unplanned event.” A sampling of actual emergency events at other ethane crackers also includes fires and explosions, evacuations, injuries, and deaths.
For instance, a ruptured boiler at the Williams Company ethane cracker plant in Geismar, Louisiana, led to an explosion and fire in 2013. The event resulted in the unplanned and unpermitted release of at least 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air, including ethylene, propylene, benzene, 1-3 butadiene, and other volatile organic chemicals, as well as the release of pollutants through the discharge of untreated fire waters, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. According to the Times-Picayune, “workers scrambl(ed) over gates to get out of the plant.” The event required the evacuation of 300 workers, injured 167, and resulted in two deaths.
The community’s emergency response involved deployment of hundreds of personnel and extensive resources, including 20 ambulances, four rescue helicopters, and buses to move the injured to multiple area hospitals. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board chalked up the incident to poor “process safety culture” at the plant and “gaps in a key industry standard by the American Petroleum Institute (API).” The accident shut the plant down for a year and a half.
Potential Risks & Shell’s Mixed Messages
Shell has done little to define the potential for emergencies at the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker plant, at least in materials made available to the public. Shell has revealed that general hazards include “fire, explosion, traffic accidents, leaks and equipment failures.”
However, we located numerous versions of Shell’s handout and found one notable difference among them—the brochure distributed to community members at a December 2016 public hearing held by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) excluded the word “explosion” from the list of “potential safety concerns.” The difference is seen in comparing the two documents.
Figure #1 below: Excerpt of online version of a handout for Beaver County, dated May 2015, with “explosion” included in list of “potential safety concerns.” (Other Shell-produced safety documents, like the one included as an exhibit in the conditional use permit application on file with the township, and Shell’s webpage for the project, also include “explosion” in the list of hazards.)
Figure #2 below: Excerpt of handout, dated November 2016 and provided to the community at December 15, 2016 meeting, with the word “explosion” no longer included.
Additional hints about risks are peppered throughout the voluminous permit applications submitted by Shell to the PA DEP and Potter Township, such as references to mitigating acts of terror against the plant, strategies for reducing water contamination, and the possibility of unplanned upsets. But the sheer volume of these documents, coupled with their limited accessibility challenge the public’s ability to digest this information. The conditional use permit application submitted by Shell indicates the existence of an Emergency Response Plan for the construction phase, but the submission is marked as confidential.
Per Pennsylvania law, and as set forth in PA DEP guidelines, Shell must submit a Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan (PPC Plan) at an unspecified point prior to operation. But at that likely too-late stage, who would hear objections to the identified hazards, when construction of the plant is already a done deal? Even then, can we trust that the plan outlined by that document is a solid and executable one?
Shell’s defense of the Beaver County plant is quick to point out differences between other plants and the one to come, making the case that technical advances will result in safety improvements. But it is noteworthy that the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board attributes failures at the Williams Geismar plant, in part, to “the ineffective implementation of…process safety management programs… as well as weaknesses in Williams’ written programs themselves.” The Geismar explosion demonstrates some of the tangible hazards that communities experience in living near ethane cracker plants. It is worth noting that the proposed Beaver County facility will have about 2½ times more ethylene processing capacity than the Geismar plant had at the time of the 2013 explosion.
Opening the Floodgates
In an effort to expand our understanding of risk associated with the proposed Beaver County ethane cracker and the extent of related developments promised by industry leaders, FracTracker Alliance has constructed the below map. It shows the site of the Shell facility and nearby land marked by Beaver County as “abandoned” or “unused.” These land parcels are potential targets for future build-out of associated facilities. Two “emergency planning zones” are indicated—a radius of 2 miles and a radius of 5 miles from the perimeter of Shell’s site. These projections are based upon FracTracker’s discussions with officials at the Saint Charles Parish Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who are responsible for emergency planning procedures in Norco, Louisiana, the site of another Shell ethane cracker facility. The emergency zones are also noted in the 2015 Saint Charles Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Also shown on the map is an estimated route of the Falcon pipeline system Shell intends to build, which will bring ethane from the shale gas fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note that this is an estimated route based on images shown in Shell’s announcement of the project. Finally, our map includes resources and sites of vulnerability, including schools, fire stations, and hospitals. The importance of these sites will be discussed in the next article of this series.
While the site of the Shell cracker is worth attending to, it would be a mistake to limit assessments of disaster risk to the site of the facility alone. Shell’s proposed plant is but one component in a larger plan to expand ethane-based processing and use in the region, with the potential to rival the Gulf Coast as a major U.S. petrochemical hub. An upcoming conference on petrochemical construction in the region, scheduled for June 2017 in Pittsburgh, shows the industry’s commitment to further development. These associated facilities (from plants producing fertilizers to plastics) would utilize their own mix of chemicals, and their potential interactions would produce additional, unforeseen hazards. Ultimately, a cumulative impact assessment is needed, and should take into account these promised facilities as well as existing resources and vulnerabilities. The below Google Earth window gives a sense of what this regional build-out might look like.
What might an ethane cracker and related petrochemical facilities look like in Beaver County? For an idea of the potential build-out, take a tour of Norco, Louisiana, which includes Shell-owned petrochemical facilities.
As discussed in the introduction, “hazard,” “vulnerability,” and “capacity” are the elements of the formula that, in turn, exacerbate or mitigate disaster risk. While much of this article has focused on drastic “hazards,” such as disastrous explosions or unplanned chemical releases, these should not overshadow the more commonplace public health threats associated with petrochemical facilities, such as detrimental impact on air quality and the psychological harm of living under the looming threat of something going wrong.
The second and third articles in this series will dig deeper into “vulnerability” and “capacity.” These terms remind us of the needs and strengths of the community in question, but also that there is a community in question.
Formulas, terminology, and calculations should not obscure the fact that people’s lives are in the balance. The public should not be satisfied with preliminary and incomplete risk assessments when major documents that should detail the disaster implications of the ethane cracker are not yet available, as well as when the full scale of future build-out in the area remains an unknown.
Much gratitude to Lisa Graves-Marcucci and Lisa Hallowell of the Environmental Integrity Project for their expertise and feedback on this article.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for effective enforcement of environmental laws.