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Five years after construction began at the site, Shell's complex, which is one of the biggest state-of-the-art ethane cracker plants in the world, is set to open. An important component of gas and a byproduct of oil refinery operations, ethane is an odorless hydrocarbon that, when heated to an extremely high temperature to "crack" its molecules apart, produces ethylene; three reactors combine ethylene with catalysts to create polyethylene; and a 2,204-ton, 285-foot-tall "quench tower" cools down the cracked gas and removes pollutants. That final product is then turned into virgin plastic pellets. Estimates suggest that a plant the size of the Potter Township petrochemical complex would use ethane from as many as 1,000 fracking wells.
Shell ranks in the top 10 among the 90 companies that are responsible for two-thirds of historic greenhouse gas emissions. Its Potter Township cracker plant is expected to emit up to 2.25 million tons of climate-warming gases annually, equivalent to approximately 430,000 extra cars on the road. It will also emit 159 tons of particulate matter pollution, 522 tons of volatile organic compounds, and more than 40 tons of other hazardous air pollutants. Exposure to these emissions is linked to brain, liver, and kidney issues; cardiovascular and respiratory disease; miscarriages and birth defects; and childhood leukemia and cancer. Some residents fear that the plant could turn the region into a sacrifice zone: a new "Cancer Alley" in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
"I'm worried about what this means for our air, which is already very polluted, and for our drinking water," said Terrie Baumgardner, a retired English professor and a member of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, the main local advocacy group that fought the plant. Baumgardner, who is also an outreach coordinator at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group Clean Air Council, lives near the ethane cracker. In addition to sharing an airshed with the plant, she is one of the approximately 5 million people whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River watershed. When Shell initially proposed the petrochemical plant in 2012, she and other community advocates tried their best to stop it.
Shell's Pennsylvania plant relies on ethane from fracking wells, a sector that has recently benefited from Russia's war on Ukraine. Prior to the war, the industry suffered from an oversupply of gas and consistently low prices, which created negative cash flows and large amounts of debt. More than 600 fracking companies and related industries in North America filed for bankruptcy between 2015 and 2022. As of 2019, Shell was one of the largest fracking leaseholders and producers over a nine-county area in the Appalachia Basin, primarily in Pennsylvania, operating more than 300 wells. The cracker plant will create additional demand from existing wells and is expected to prompt the drilling of new ones, all at a time when the war in Ukraine has caused a huge spike in gas prices and a windfall for companies like Shell.
"The cracker is really only here because of local natural gas and subsidies offered to Shell. Of course it's beneficial for the folks who get those jobs, but we shouldn't just look at a small set of local outcomes when considering these things."
"Even this one facility is not just one facility," Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based collaborative of more than 50 regional and national environmental advocacy groups, said of Shell's Potter Township project. "The ethane cracker itself is well down the production chain. It starts with fracking wells, then there are gathering lines, pipelines, and compressor stations, among other facilities. And after the cracker plant, there are downstream manufacturing processes to turn these plastic pellets into products. Every single part of that chain poses risks."
THE BEAVER COUNTY Marcellus Awareness Community spent years fighting an influx of fracking wells long before Shell proposed to build an ethane cracker plant nearby. Once it learned about the proposal, the community group then pivoted from opposing wells to trying to stop the ethane cracker. During the course of a seven-year campaign, it formed partnerships with local and national environmental and health advocacy groups, including the Breathe Project and its members, such as the Clean Air Council, and with researchers at local universities and water protectors from Native American tribes throughout the watershed. Together, they launched a comprehensive grassroots campaign against the cracker: They canvassed, filed petitions, appealed permit approvals, spoke at public hearings, and held protests.
In September 2021, members of the group and other residents noticed a sickly-sweet maple-syrup-like smell emanating from the site and notified regulatory agencies. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued Shell violations for "malodorous air contaminants," and Shell identified the smell as coming from chlorotolyltriazole, a compound that, according to the company, formed when they applied a corrosion inhibitor and bleach to cooling units at the plant. In March 2022, a piece of faulty equipment resulted in the spill of 2,500 gallons of sulfuric acid at the site. Again, residents and activists learned of the problem when a number of them received notifications from a national alert system that there had been a sulfuric acid spill in the area. Although the alert didn't specify the origin of the spill, it didn't take much research on the part of local activists to determine that it had occurred at the cracker plant. Shell later stated that the spill was entirely contained and that none made its way into nearby water or soil, and no violations were issued.
RESIDENTS OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY, which includes Pittsburgh, are about 35 miles away from Potter Township, but they could be just as impacted by Shell's cracker plant. Home to massive industrial polluters like US Steel and PPG Industries, the county had air that was among the dirtiest in the nation before Shell's ethane cracker arrived. Yet even though air and water pollution don't respect geographical borders, residents outside Potter Township were given little say about the plant.
In 2014, Minott's group created a detailed report on the expected impacts of the ethane cracker, including increased risk of cancer and respiratory and heart disease, increased traffic, and light and noise pollution. The organization also provided expert witnesses and legal counsel to the community, then took Shell to court. Shell eventually settled on both counts and agreed to provide better pollution controls during flaring and continuous fence-line air monitoring at the plant, accompanied by a public online dashboard where residents can review air-monitoring data.
Other research promises that those benefits are still coming. A study commissioned by Shell and published by researchers at Robert Morris University in 2021 projected that once it opened, the ethane cracker would add nearly $4 billion a year to the state's economy. In Beaver County alone, the report found, the complex would produce $260 million to $846 million in annual economic activity, including wages, benefits, and related spending. Environmental advocates called the report "propaganda" because it didn't consider subsidies or externalized costs to health and the environment. The true costs and benefits remain to be seen.
Republican state senator Elder Vogel Jr., one of the sponsors of the $1.7 billion subsidy the state offered Shell, represents parts of Pennsylvania's Beaver, Lawrence, and Butler Counties, including Potter Township, where the cracker plant is located. Despite the local opposition, he remains a firm supporter of the facility. "All across the world, people have heard about Beaver County now," Vogel said. "This Shell plant is putting us on the map."
Nick Muller, a professor of economics, engineering, and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, coauthored a 2019 study on the environmental and employment impacts of the shale gas boom. It found that the adverse effects on public health almost exactly equaled the economic benefits, and the climate costs subtracted another $12 billion to $15 billion in value, putting the industry's cumulative economic impact in the red. "The cracker is really only here because of local natural gas and subsidies offered to Shell," Muller said. "Of course it's beneficial for the folks who get those jobs, but we shouldn't just look at a small set of local outcomes when considering these things."
For people like Schmetzer, who are living in the shadow of the cracker but not directly benefiting from the jobs, the trade-offs are obvious. His wife died from heart disease a few years ago, which he attributes in part to air pollution from the oil and gas industry and the proliferation of fracking wells. "She already had heart problems, so it wasn't like air pollution originated it, but it kicked it into gear, and I'm still furious about that," he said.
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