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A Shell chemical plant stirs economic hope and environmental fears in Western Pa.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are some complicated feelings surrounding a new plant just outside Pittsburgh. Later this summer, oil giant Shell is expected to open a new chemical plant that will turn natural gas into plastic. Over the last decade of development, the plant has brought hope and fear for many in this stretch of the Rust Belt. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier reports.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: At a local restaurant, Skip Homan tells a story familiar to western Pennsylvania.

SKIP HOMAN: Steel in Beaver County was the major source of employment.

FRAZIER: Homan is a retired engineer who sits on the board of the Beaver County Partnership for Community and Economic Growth. He says when steel left in the 1980s, the county's tax base collapsed, as did its population and school enrollments. Then in 2016, Shell picked the county as the site for a multibillion-dollar plant called an ethane cracker.

HOMAN: Before Shell, Beaver County was really not recognized, not known. Now Beaver County is on the map.

FRAZIER: Shell received the largest state subsidy ever in Pennsylvania, a $1.65 billion tax credit to build the sprawling plant. Here's Hilary Mercer, a company vice president, in a video promoting the project on Shell's Facebook page.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILARY MERCER: Shell's building a new business here in Pennsylvania. We're building a polyethylene business, which is the building blocks for many of the plastics that we see around us today.

FRAZIER: At its peak, the site was the biggest construction project in North America. Eighty-five hundred workers, many from out of state, crowded hotels, restaurants and rental apartments. When the plant opens, it will have 600 permanent jobs. Not everyone here is happy about this project. Joyce Hanshaw lives across the Ohio River in the town of Vanport. She and husband, Don, a retired steelworker, used to have bonfires in their backyard.

JOYCE HANSHAW: The whole area here is all lit up all the time, so there's no - really, no nighttime here.

FRAZIER: The couple bought their house in 1973. She doesn't want to move, mostly because the house is paid off. Hanshaw is worried about what kind of health problems the plant might cause.

HANSHAW: I'm just wondering, for health reasons - it being plastic and that I already have lung problems as it is - what's it going to be like?

FRAZIER: Shell didn't respond to requests for an interview, but in written statements says it's following all state and federal rules. As part of a settlement with environmental groups, it installed pollution monitors around the plant. But it's still permitted to emit large amounts of smog-forming chemicals, particles and planet-warming carbon dioxide. That got Cheryl Hardy (ph) worried. Last year, she and her husband picked up and moved 15 miles away rather than live near the plant with their two young children.

CHERYL HARDY: Being, like, in eyesight or across from it in the event of an explosion or, you know, something that would have happened accidentally, and our kids - like, it just scared us.

FRAZIER: Hardy says she knows several other families thinking of doing the same, but Derrick Reynolds isn't among them. He grew up in Beaver County. One of his first jobs was taking apart a closed down steel mill. He worked in construction on the Shell plant and now runs a nearby catering business with his fiancee. For Reynolds, the prospect of pollution from the plant doesn't bother him.

DERRICK REYNOLDS: Before a lot of the jobs went away, the steel mills was booming around here. And you know it was a lot of exhaust and smoke going on. So to me, it's nothing new.

FRAZIER: He says he'll reserve judgment on the plant until he sees how it performs when it opens.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Monaca, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "SHINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reid Frazier

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