We had already co-produced a series in 2021 with NBC News about the plastics industry build up in Appalachia, then last fall the new Shell plant we had reported on, went online. Soon after, photos started appearing on social media — there were problems with the plant.

And that’s when we started investigating.

Like so many communities along the Ohio River, Monaca has struggled in recent years. Industrial decline caused the closure of many factories and mills — and subsequent job losses in the Rust Belt. But the town is now home to a major new industry that the state of Pennsylvania has invested heavily in. The Shell Polymers Monaca plant can produce as much as 1.6 million tonnes of polyethylene pellets each year for use in plastic products. When the plant went online last fall, there seemed to be a number of malfunctions and excessive flaring happening at the 384 acre facility.

As part of our ongoing partnership, NBC reporters Kenzi Abou-Sabe and Hannah Rappleye, and the GRC’s Katarina Sabados, began investigating the issues with the Shell plant. Katarina started by looking into photos being shared on social media of flaring.

Screenshot captured from Facebook

She attended virtual meetings of the community watchdog group that had formed. Katarina also monitored the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), downloading new documents from its website: spreadsheets with emissions counts, notices of violation, and malfunction reports. She spent weeks combing through the government agency’s updated risk assessment of the plant’s emissions.

After spending months gathering information, Katarina traveled to Monaca in March to hear from residents who were concerned about Shell’s air emissions. She met with community members — she sat in kitchens with people who live in the shadow of the massive plant. They shared with her their concerns about their health and the health of their families. Many were actively working to pressure Shell to keep emissions within safety limits. 

As well as current issues with the plant, Katarina also wanted to follow up to find out whether Shell was meeting its stated job creation commitments in Monaca. When the project was announced in 2012, Shell representatives made public statements about the planned creation of 600 permanent jobs. Shell said that for every job created, an additional 18 jobs would be created in the community. To find out how Shell was doing on those commitments, Katarina filed three Freedom of Information Act requests and learned  that the Shell plant had created 457 jobs as of 2022. But because the keystone agreement with the state only outlined the creation of 400 jobs, and not the 600 jobs as publicly stated, Shell has technically fulfilled its obligation.

Screenshot of document obtained from FOIA request

After months of interviews with oil and gas industry experts, academics, activists, and residents, plus responses from Shell and the DEP, the story was ready to publish.

And then this was announced:

Screenshot captured from governor.pa.gov

While Katarina and the team from NBC were writing this story, Shell and the DEP were negotiating a consent order and agreement to acknowledge and make reparations for the violation of emission limits. As part of the 10 million dollar settlement, Shell must pay a civil penalty of $4,935,023 and pay an additional $5 million to support local environmental projects that benefit the surrounding communities.

“The impact of the investigation will be long-term. The immediate impact is that a wide readership got to see very concise snapshots of life on the ground in Monaca following the malfunctions from the first months of plant operations leading up to the settlement,” said Sabados.

This investigation was made possible by a grant from the Park Foundation.  It is part of our ongoing series into the plastics industry.

Katarina Sabados is an investigative reporter and former GRC supply chain fellow. She’s worked on several major cross-border investigations into organized crime, corruption, and industry, notably The Troika Laundromat, FinCenFiles, 29 Leaks, Tajikistan: Money by Marriage, and Unfinished Lives, Unfinished Justice. Her investigative research and reporting has appeared in NBC News, THIS magazine, Canada’s National Observer, the Toronto Star, GIJN, and OCCRP. (Photo: Michelle Meiklejohn)

There is more to this story, and you can help us tell it. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to fund some of the costs associated with this investigation.