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Environment & Energy

Western Pennsylvania Shell Plant Could Bring Jobs but also Microplastics Pollution

a photo of a container filled with nurdles
Nurdle Patrol is a group that collects washed up nurdles on beaches.

When the petrochemical plant being built by Shell Chemical Appalachia in Beaver County, Pennsylania is complete, it’s anticipated to bring 600 jobs as well as spinoff industries. Some researchers and activists warn that it could also bring a new type of pollution to the Ohio River Valley — nurdles.

Before last year, Jace Tunnell, director of the Marine Science Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, had only heard of nurdles - tiny plastic pellets - the size of a lentil made at petrochemical plants. They’re the raw material of the plastics industry, the building blocks of everything from car parts, to keyboards, to grocery store bags.  

But walking along the beach at Corpus Christi, Texas in 2018, was the first time he saw one.

“At first I wasn’t sure, are they fish eggs? When I picked one up and squeezed it, it was really hard. I knew exactly what that was. It was a nurdle.”

Tunnell wanted to know more - how many of these were really washing up on the shores of the Texas Gulf Coast? So he started a citizen science project, surveying a beach by looking along the tide line.  “Here’s one right here.”

Once a nurdle is found, participants search for ten minutes and input their tally into Nurdle Patrol’s database. Boy Scout troops, families and others have done surveys along the Gulf Coast.

“What we’ve learned since is that almost every single beach that you go to has pellets on it,” Tunnell said.

Plastic pellets break down into smaller pieces, but they never fully go away - and over time, nurdles just keep accumulating.

Cracker plants, like the one Shell is building in Beaver County, use the ethane in natural gas - now abundant because of fracking - to make plastic pellets. Each year, Shell’s plant alone will produce nearly 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets. That’s trillions of nurdles annually.

“I think that once this facility is up and running, people will start to see tiny little bits of plastic, these nurdles that are lining the waterways where the storm water drains into," said Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Once you see them, you're going to see millions of them.”

It’s easy for these tiny, lightweight pellets to escape. Millions are loaded into trucks, trains and ships for transport and easily spill. When it rains, spilled nurdles can wash into waterways.

The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the U.S. EPA, supported by 280 environmental, public health, indigenous and community groups across the country. It calls for an update to federal regulations to specifically prohibit discharge of nurdles into waterways.  

“First off, let's remember that this material is very valuable. It's something that our members want to keep keep control over," said Keith Christman, head of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that runs Operation Clean Sweep. It’s a voluntary stewardship program for plastic makers.

“Our goal is to move towards zero pellet loss to the environment. And there are good housekeeping practices that are part of Operation Clean Sweep that catches any material that might fall on the ground, sweeps it up, vacuums it up, and prevents it from getting into the environment.”

Shell is a member of Operation Clean Sweep. In an email, the company said it has pledged to prevent accidental loss of plastic pellets.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has issued water pollution permits for the Shell ethane cracker.

In an email, the agency points to Shell’s permit that limits the discharge of floating materials, like nurdles, in the plant’s storm water - in amounts that could be harmful to humans or wildlife.

Those amounts aren’t defined.

In Ohio, the state EPA last year approved water pollution permits for another ethane cracker along the Ohio River. In an email, that agency described similar stormwater rules and plant designs.

But Jace Tunnell, the Texas researcher, recommends that before the petrochemical plants start operating in Pennsylvania and Ohio, people use his Nurdle Patrol protocol to survey the nearby waters, to get a baseline on the number of nurdles they find.  

“I would go out and start collecting data. Even zeros are data,” Tunnell said.

He said showing no nurdles on the banks of the Ohio River now, can be a powerful tool to hold industry accountable later.