KDKA investigates: Will Shell’s cracker factory be an economic boom or an environmental meltdown?

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POTTER TOWNSHIP, Pa. (KDKA) — After a decade of planning and construction, Shell’s cracker plant in Beaver County is finally about to open.

While some say it has already created jobs and is poised to bring an even bigger economic boom to the region, others fear it could be nothing more than an environmental meltdown.

If you haven’t seen the Cracker Factory for yourself yet, it’s worth taking a trip to Potter Township just to get an idea of ​​its size. The gigantic, multi-billion dollar complex stretches for a mile along the banks of the Ohio River, covering 780 acres of redeveloped land with an ominous-looking metal fortress made up of towers, tanks and pipes.

It took 6,000 construction workers to build it, and when it is operational later this summer, it will need 600 workers to keep it running. But its economic impact can be much greater.

It’s the biggest private development in the area since Andrew Carnegie built the steelworks, and many hope it will spawn a new industry to fill the void left by the closed steelworks.

Developer Chuck Betters says it’s a long time coming.

“To see those tens of thousands of jobs that were lost come back, good-paying union jobs with benefits, like the factories had,” Betters said.

But for others, the cracker factory is a step back in time, inviting another polluting industry to a river valley finally returning to the environment with fish and wildlife not seen in more than a century. century.

“You can’t underestimate the negative economic impact of workers developing respiratory disease or cardiovascular disease. All of these risks increase when you turn on the switch in a large factory like the one we see in this Shell factory” , said Matthew Mehalik. with the Respire project.

The cracker factory is married to another industry that has sparked the same debate, the shale gas industry, which for the past decade and a half has drilled and fractured the Marcellus Shale in Beaver County and other neighboring counties.

Shell has built a 97-mile pipeline to deliver ethane from shale gas to the site where it will be transformed, or cracked, into ethylene and then polyethylene – the building blocks of plastics.

Over the course of a year, Shell says it will produce 3.5 billion pounds of small plastic pellets which can then be shipped to companies making everything from plastic bags and bottles to diapers, toys and items household.

Beaver County leaders hope many of these businesses decide to locate here, but say that regardless, the cracker plant has already been an economic boost in the arm.

“The change has been absolutely dramatic. Beaver County is much more vibrant. People know Beaver County all over the world. The problem is finding jobs. There are so many jobs and opportunities to jobs in Beaver County. The problem is filling them,” said Charles “Skip” Homan of Beaver Community and Economic Growth.

But environmentalists say those gains will be short-lived now that construction workers are packing their bags.

They say the region is recklessly hitching its cart on plastics amid a global outcry over a glut of plastic waste.

“Ninety percent is not recycled,” Mehalik said. “It’s ending up in our water supplies, it’s ending up in the ocean and it’s ending up in the air. They’ve detected micro-plastics in the snow in Antarctica. The answer is not more plastic. We we don’t need the plastics we have, so the decision to double up is not a good economic plan.

Wednesday night on KDKA News at 6 p.m., we’ll dive deeper into the environmental impact of the cracker factory. We’ll talk to local environmentalists about their concerns about emissions, and we’ll talk with Shell about the company’s efforts to address those concerns.

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