On the grounds of a western Pennsylvania convent, two small white cylinders fixed under the eave of a garage are helping to monitor air in a region that has long suffered from poor air quality and that soon will face a major additional source of emissions from a vast new petrochemical plant.
The cylinders, each not much bigger than a soda can, collect data on particulates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — both potentially harmful pollutants — in the air surrounding the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, about 25 miles north of Pittsburgh.
The monitors are part of a network in the vicinity installed by Mark Dixon, an independent air-quality advocate and filmmaker who has been monitoring air pollution in the Pittsburgh area since 2016. He’s now focusing on an ethane cracker plant being built by the oil giant Shell at Monaca on the south bank of the Ohio River, about five miles northwest of the convent. Dixon has so far installed 14 monitors within about five miles of the plant; he aims to add six more before the Shell plant opens.
The plant will convert ethane from the region’s many natural gas wells into tiny pellets, or “nurdles,” to be made by customers into plastic products. It is expected to open in 2022.
Dixon and other air-quality activists fear the complex will worsen air quality in an area that has lived with air pollution from the coal and steel industries for decades. Despite the closing of many steel plants, Pittsburgh’s air quality is still rated ninth-worst in the United States for year-round particulate pollution by the American Lung Association.
One community group monitors for noise around the gas fracking wells that will supply the Shell plant.
Dixon said the monitoring is designed to make sure that Shell is polluting within permitted levels and to let the company know “that there are [other] eyes on Shell that go beyond just noses and eyeballs.”
The devices being used by Dixon, which cost $200 to $300 each, automatically upload the information to two websites — Purple Air and Airviz — that contain maps showing air quality at specific locations in near real-time. The monitors are now collecting baseline information that will be used to show any changes when the cracker plant begins operating.
Dixon acknowledged that the data gathered by his monitors isn’t “regulatory grade,” but argued that they give citizens a basis on which to make their case to regulators to set higher standards or just enforce current rules. He is funded by the Mountain Watershed Associations’s Direct Support Fund, a local group that provides small grants to grassroots organizations and advocates working on environmental justice, fracking, and pollution created by petrochemical plants.
In the Ohio River valley, residents are collecting fragments of plastic to compare with any leakage of nurdles from the new plant when it opens. The Mountain Watershed Association has been using fine nets to trap plastic debris in the river near the Shell plant.
“You don’t want people fishing in these waters, and you don’t want people eating fish that have ingested nurdles,” said James Cato, the association’s community organizer. “These plastic pellets don’t biodegrade; they just break down into slightly smaller chunks of plastic that end up in the ecosystem.”
Another community group, Protect PT, monitors for noise around the natural gas fracking wells that will supply the Shell plant and is taking baseline readings around the plant site ahead of its opening. The group trains volunteers to gather noise data and then compares that with federal regulations to see if there’s a violation, said Gillian Graber, Project PT’s executive director. She said municipalities may have noise ordinances but may not have the capacity to enforce them. “The municipality is not going to have someone to do that in most cases; they don’t have the technology,” she said.
The practice of citizens using their own time and technical know-how to monitor the pollution of air, water, and land has been underway for decades, providing an additional layer of information on contaminants that threaten public health but may be overlooked by regulators or undercounted by companies. But improvements in low-cost technologies and a growing distrust of companies and regulators have recently swelled the ranks of citizen scientists.
“The availability of low-cost monitors has enabled a greater degree of participation,” said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a nonprofit that advocates for air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania. “The barriers to participation are much lower. It’s a recognition that unless people speak up on issues related to their health, things may not get addressed.”
Communities for a Better Environment, a California nonprofit, was a leader in this field starting in the 1990s when it helped local residents sample air in the San Francisco Bay area. Much of the sampling took place in low-income communities of color, with residents monitoring air near local refineries and sending samples for analysis by laboratories.
“The primary use was to demand your voice be heard, and it helped people organize to make things better for their health and their community,” said Greg Karras, a former researcher for the nonprofit.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains near California’s Silicon Valley, Ryan Poling uses a sensor from Purple Air to monitor air pollution from wildfires in the region. Poling, 42, a software engineer, said the sensor alerted him to very high levels of microscopic particles called PM2.5 around his house as a result of this summer’s fires. The smoke forced him to stay indoors for about two weeks. He also installed two sensors inside that alerted him to unhealthy indoor air quality during the worst part of this summer’s fire season.
Poling and his family moved to California from Pittsburgh in 2018 partly to escape the Pennsylvania city’s air problems; he now finds he’s enveloped by unhealthy air for part of each year. His sensor, which cost him $249, automatically posts near real-time data about the fine-particle content of air at his house to the Purple Air website. The company says that about 30,000 of its sensors are installed worldwide, enabling people in many places to see what air quality is like in surrounding towns and regions.
“I mainly just use it as a real-time way to look and see if it’s OK to go for a run outside, or if I should stay inside that day,” he said. “Do I have the windows open? Do I need to close everything up?”
In Pennsylvania, the Catholic community of the Sisters of St. Joseph has been hosting Mark Dixon’s air monitors since December 2020. Their presence is consistent with the sisters’ belief that they have a responsibility to God to care for the environment, and their concerns are heightened with the imminent opening of the Shell plant.
“The protection of our environment is certainly related to our faith,” said Sister Kari Pohl, the congregational coordinator of justice and peace and one of about 70 nuns who live at the religious community. She said the women are inspired by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, in which he calls for a higher standard of care for the natural environment.
Sister Pohl said she wore a medical-standard face mask one day in July when she went to pick blackberries in the convent’s community garden because the air quality was so poor. While she’s worried about the effects of the whole petrochemical industry on the environment, she’s focused on the new Shell complex.
“The Shell plant is probably the most visible footprint of the petrochemical industry’s expansion in our area,” she said.
Curtis Smith, a spokesperson for Shell, said the plant has been designed to minimize air emissions and is complying with all state and federal environmental regulations. “Regulations require that Shell demonstrate that the project will not impact air quality,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has permitted the plant to emit 522 tons a year of VOCs such as benzene and toluene, both of which are potential carcinogens. That’s more than twice as much as the 222 tons of VOCs emitted in 2018 by the Clairton Coke Works, a leading source of the Pittsburgh area’s pollution.
The Shell plant will also be allowed to discharge up to 159 tons a year of PM2.5 fine particles, which are typically emitted from smokestacks or automobiles and can impair lung function and lead to health problems, including an irregular heartbeat and aggravated asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
John Stolz, a Duquesne University professor of environmental microbiology and a longtime critic of the natural gas industry, has estimated that the cracker will need fracked gas from more than 1,000 new wells every 5 to 10 years. Smith did not respond to requests for comment on Stolz’s projection, but he did say that natural gas will fuel a cogeneration plant on site, producing electricity, and that any excess power from the plant will be sold to the grid, which would potentially reduce carbon emissions from other fossil fuel use.
In 2017, the company agreed to set up air quality monitoring on the perimeter of its plant, in response to a lawsuit by the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Group, two nonprofits.
But even with the company’s own monitoring, there’s a need for data collected by citizens who are often more aware of changing air conditions than corporations or regulators, argued Mehalik of the Breathe Project.
“It’s usually the citizens who figure out what’s going on before the company discloses it,” said one activist.
Citizen science can begin simply by residents smelling bad air, as happened in recent weeks when Shell was coating some of its new infrastructure and the odors drifted off site, Mehalik said. The emission was detected on some VOC monitors, but they did not identify the chemical. Dozens of people posted their concerns on a Facebook page and reported the incident to county officials, who then alerted the state Department of Environmental Protection, he said. Shell eventually identified the chemical, but not until four days after the release.
“This is why citizen science monitoring is critical, in that the feedback loop between smelling something and being able to raise the alarm and diagnose what the issue is requires citizens to pay close attention to what’s happening so that they can get information and resolution as quickly as possible,” Mehalik said. “It’s usually the citizens who figure out what’s going on before the company discloses it.”
A similar hands-on approach is being taken in Charleston, South Carolina, where a water-quality nonprofit found that the same kind of tiny plastic pellets that will be produced by the Pennsylvania Shell plant had leaked onto beaches and into waterways from a local shipping facility.
Charleston Waterkeeper, with a full-time staff of three, investigated a report that the pellets were fouling a local beach. The group then discovered that the material was widespread, especially near the plant, operated by Frontier Logistics, which was receiving the material by train from a cracker plant in Texas. That led to a sampling protocol that estimated the density of nurdles by individuals picking up as many as possible within 10 minutes. In some places, there were so many that sampling areas rarely exceeded 1 square meter, said Andrew Wunderley, executive director of Charleston Waterkeeper.
Last March, the Charleston Waterkeeper won a lawsuit against Frontier on the grounds that the company had violated two federal environmental laws by allowing the pellets to leak from its plant and its trains. The company agreed to pay $1 million to create a water-quality fund.
“What I really hope is that it sends a message to these other facilities — if you don’t operate in a way that respects this community and respects our natural resources, we’re going to find out about it, using citizen science, and we’re going to hold you accountable,” Wunderley said.
In the western Pennsylvania town of New Brighton, about nine miles north of the Shell plant, Randy Shannon has two of Dixon’s monitors fixed to the corner of the house where he has lived for the last 30 years. Shannon, 74, is a long-time opponent of the local natural gas industry, which since the mid-2000s has been exploiting the rich reserves beneath southwestern Pennsylvania using the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Now he’s worried about what the Shell plant might do to local air quality, and he has gone so far as to take out a reverse mortgage on his home — meaning that the bank now owns it, but he’s allowed to live in it for the rest of his life — so that he can walk away if the air gets too bad.
“There’s a real possibility that the atmosphere can become unhealthy,” he said. “I’m worried that the air quality might get so bad that it would affect the value of the house.”