Families leave Beaver County as Shell’s ethane cracker opens

Cheryl and Luke Hardy moved to Beaver County in 2012. Luke was from Albany, New York, where he was a graduate student, and Cheryl was from Washington, DC

The Beaver County location was equidistant from their jobs—Luke’s at a university in Ohio and Cheryl’s in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

They ended up buying a home in Beaver, an attractive town on the Ohio River with historic homes and a walkable business district. The couple enjoyed events and festivals in the city and went to restaurants there. When their children were born, they took them to a nearby playground and thought of accompanying them to the nearby elementary school one day.

You hardly noticed in 2016, when Shell announced it was building a multi-billion-dollar plastics facility called Ethan Cracker across the river. As construction workers began building the massive facility, it became increasingly difficult to ignore them as they drove their children to daycare.

“Every day, twice a day, we had to drive past it and you could see the project gradually developing,” Luke said. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

One night as he was putting his children to bed, Luke Hardy saw something new out the window – a recently completed tower at the plant.

The more they learned about the cracker, particularly its ability to emit millions of pounds of air pollution a year, the less they liked the idea of ​​living within sight.

So last year they left Beaver County and bought a house 15 miles away in Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh International Airport.

“It was scary having it right across the river from our house and family,” Cheryl said. “If something happened accidentally, and our kids … it just scared us.”

Reid R Frazier


The Allegheny Front

Shell’s ethane crackers along the Ohio River in July 2022.

A reason to go

Shell’s ethane cracker will start up this summer. It will turn natural gas from fracking into 1.6 million tons of plastic. Built with a $1.65 billion state tax credit, the largest in the state’s history, the cracker was hailed by many of the region’s political and economic leaders as a way to end years of population loss and economic decline to reverse But for some people, it’s just the opposite: a reason to leave.

It’s hard to tell how many people the Cracker will drive away like the Hardys did.

Census numbers showed an increase in population as more than 8,000 workers, many from outside of Pennsylvania, came to Beaver County to build the plant, followed by a post-2020 population decline. But the Hardys aren’t alone — they know three other couples who are considering leaving.

Shell Ethan Cracker Brighton Township Family Pennsylvania.PNG

Reid R Frazier


The Allegheny Front

Jackie Shock-Stewart and Matt Stewart with their three children at their home in Brighton Township, Beaver County. They’re moving to Ohio.

Including Matt Stewart and Jackie Shock-Stewart. They live in Brighton Township, about 5 miles from the complex. The couple’s backyard overlooks a lush hillside that slopes down into the forest below, where Matt, an urban planner, built a series of short trails.

“I absolutely believe that western Pennsylvania is such a beautiful place — like that landscape … I mean, it’s amazing,” Stewart said.

He understands that people have to work, and the cracker has brought construction jobs. Upon completion, it will employ 600 permanent staff. But seeing the cracker rise, with essentially unanimous support from local politicians and many in the community, living in Beaver County infuriated him.

“That’s kind of why I don’t know if I want to be here — because it’s just not part of the culture to respect the country,” Stewart said.

For Jackie Shock-Stewart, her fears are more personal. She has reflected on research and news reports on the plant, including air pollution warnings from environmental groups. A map from the Environmental Health Project caught her eye. (EHP receives funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.)

“We looked at projection maps that project particularly high-risk air quality areas — the elementary school goes right into the high-risk area,” she said. “Our children will spend 8 hours a day in a risk area.”

Companies and regulators say it’s safe

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection claims the cracker will not bring the region’s air quality above federal pollution limits. Shell has agreed to monitor air quality around the facility and has submitted written documentation that it complies with all state and federal laws.

Despite this, the couple have decided to leave and head west to Ohio, where Stewart recently took a job in his hometown. You know not everyone in Beaver County can do the same thing.

“I kind of feel with these people that this is their home and they can’t move easily. They don’t want to have to move,” Stewart said.

District leaders say they’re not worried about some kind of exodus. Jack Manning, a Beaver County commissioner who used to work in the petrochemical industry, said he’s confident the plant will be safe and help rebuild the area’s industrial base.

“It would be nice if we could all sit at Starbucks and make a living sitting at our laptops and typing and texting people,” Manning said. “But as an economy … if we’re not making things for a living, if people aren’t using our hands and their minds, and we’re just trying to be a service economy, I don’t see how we can survive in that kind of environment.”

Leaving for tech jobs

For David Walker, who spent much of his life in Beaver County, the cracker was a reason to leave the area. He had hoped that his children would grow up there and have opportunities in fields such as technology or medicine. Instead, he said, Beaver County is trying to reclaim something of its past.

“This Shell plant is just a repeat of what we saw in the industry, in the steel mills, in the 1970s,” Walker said. “I grew up in a family that worked in steel mills, so I didn’t want my kids to go in that direction.”

Last year Walker moved with his wife and three children to the Raleigh, North Carolina area where he works in engineering. Apple is building a multi-billion dollar campus there that will employ 3,000 professionals.

“If you look at where, for example, North Carolina and this county are going and their plans for directions in medicine, biotechnology and technology, that gives us more opportunity down here,” he said.

Back at the Hardys’ home, Luke shows off their new back deck. There is a fenced yard which is good for their two dogs and the couple’s two children. “It’s quiet in the backyard and we like the patio,” he said.

There’s the not-so-occasional plane overhead, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. It’s far more private than the front porch in Beaver, where neighbors stopped by and sometimes had long chats. Luke says he misses the old house, being able to walk to a store, and those neighbors.

“We would have lived in Beaver. You know, the kids would have gone to school there,” he said. “I don’t think we would have even discussed moving because there would have been no reason for it.”

The Hardys say they hope they’re wrong about the ethane cracker – that it’s safe for those nearby. But they are not willing to stake their future – or that of their children – on any hope.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to report on the Commonwealth’s energy economy.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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