Life between two Shell plants
Reporting Anya Litvak Photography Andrew Rush
Reporting Anya Litvak
Photography Andrew Rush
St. Charles Parish, LA
It was around 4 a.m., a few days before Barbara and Randy Dixon were supposed to move into their new home on Goodhope Street in Norco, La., when an explosion knocked out every window in the house, spreading broken glass like a carpet over the porch. Ceiling fans fell to the floor when the home was lifted up and dropped back down onto its posts, cracking two studs, in a scene repeated throughout the neighborhood.
Ms. Dixon’s father, who lived a few blocks away, was hurled out of bed. Shaken awake by the fall, he quickly gathered himself, told his wife to get dressed and headed for the car, always kept fueled for just this type of occasion. The family trained for situations like this because like Ms. Dixon, her father grew up a few blocks away from a petrochemical plant and refinery run by Royal Dutch Shell.
This was the worst-case scenario, the catastrophic event that some residents of Beaver County in Pennsylvania have begun to equate with any mention of the $6 billion ethane cracker and petrochemical complex that Shell is building in Potter Township.
Even in a town that grew up around a cracker, everyone in Norco seems to remember where they were almost 30 years ago on May 5, 1988, and those that weren’t born yet have had the story passed down to them like a family heirloom.
Fortunately it was the middle of the night and not the middle of rush hour, TV reporters said over footage of billowing flames and black smoke that hovered over the area. Seven Shell employees died when the catalytic cracker blew up.
It was several days before emergency responders could get close enough to recover their bodies and before the Dixons could assess the damage to their home, about 400 feet from Shell’s fenceline.
They swept up glass, repaired the ceiling fans and went on with their lives.
“I’d never given it a second thought,” said Randy Dixon, pulling on a cigar one recent February evening on the porch of his Goodhope Street home. The Shell plant hummed in the background.
It was Ms. Dixon who brought this New Orleans army brat back to her hometown — she, the daughter of a Shell shift supervisor, the granddaughter of a Shell laborer and sister to four Shell employees. A year ago, she retired from a career as an administrative assistant at the Valero refinery 2 miles away.
“The plants don’t bother me,” she said. “It’s been our livelihood.”
When the Dixons learned that Pennsylvania would get its own ethane cracker soon, and that people living near the new plant were both optimistic and worried, they had the same reaction as most interviewed for this story.
“The jobs,” Ms. Dixon said. “The jobs that it’s gonna create. ... It supported my family for years. For generations.”
“Who’s building the plant?” Mr. Dixon asked.
Shell Chemical Co.
“They’re a good neighbor,” he said.
Think of what it means to be a good neighbor in a residential setting.
If you don’t know who lives next door, but periodically hear loud noises, see flames lighting up the night and have to fight the traffic of their visitors during rush hour, it’s unlikely you’d brag about your situation.
Now, consider that you’re friends with the raucous family next door. That sometimes they have mishaps and, when they do, they run over to you to explain what happened. You trust them. They repay you for the inconvenience by buying your kids’ Girl Scout cookies. You got your job because they recommended you for it. Everyone else is friends with them as well.
That’s how the Dixons and many others experience life in Norco, a town named for the New Orleans Refining Co. that sprawled its metal towers, tanks and smokestacks over the sugar cane fields of the Good Hope plantation a century ago. Shell bought the facility in 1929.
“It does get noisy,” Ms. Dixon said. “And sometimes the windows rattle and the house shakes” when the company sets off its flares.
“That’s a good thing,” she said. “They’re burning off some bad stuff.”
In Beaver County, not a meeting has gone by where a discussion about the future cracker plant hasn’t mentioned the flares — the most visible sign that something isn’t working as it should.
That’s not lost on Shell, even in places like Norco, where everyone is but a degree of separation from someone whose livelihood depends on the plant.
Inside its control room, where computer screens line the walls and cubicles, keeping track of hundreds of thousands of flanges and valves, there are a few old school television screens showing a grainy live stream of the flare towers.
“Normally, you want to see nothing,” said Michiel Regelink, production unit manager for olefins at the Norco Manufacturing Complex, offering a reminder that a flare is a safety device, meant to relieve pressure and burn chemicals that would otherwise be released into the air. Flaring can happen when equipment is being cleaned or repaired, or during upsets.
How frequently does Shell need to use it?
“Too frequently,” Mr. Regelink said. That’s because whenever it happens — even if it’s a relatively rare event — the engineers inside wish it weren’t so.
When the emergency flare is lit in Norco, it’s so bright on the Dixons’ porch that they can read a newspaper by the orange light. Sometimes they sit in their rocking chairs and watch the flames.
They haven’t seen the flare “in months,” they said. “Probably sometime around August,” Mr. Dixon guessed.
According to the company’s Facebook feed, which posts alerts for residents to anticipate flaring and odors, there have been 11 such events since June: 6 were unit upsets, and the rest maintenance-related conditions.
The Dixons don’t sit there thinking about what chemicals are in the flare because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency takes care of all of that, they said.
Working at a chemical plant, Ms. Dixon said, has given her an appreciation for the environmental controls that companies must adhere to. They don’t want to pay any extra money for fines, she reasoned, so they work to stay within the EPA guidelines.
Mr. Dixon, who is no fan of the EPA’s rules, nevertheless feels safe with its oversight.
“Their regulation-making is really silly sometimes,” he said. “But as far as enforcement and monitoring these plants — they do a good job.”
From plantations to plants
There used to be a row of homes across the street from the Dixons. Now there’s mostly grass, which the owner, Shell, keeps trim. And a few late-blooming pecan trees, whose fruit Ms. Dixon turns into candy and fudge.
Mr. Dixon pointed to a house a few doors down from his own and said it used to be on the other side of the street until Shell offered buyouts for people living within two blocks of its facilities.
The buyout program was a hard-fought battle between Shell and residents of the Diamond community, a black enclave on the western part of Norco where Shell built more chemical facilities in 1967, sandwiching the town between its two campuses.
Diamond is four square blocks and 150 years of history. As part of Shell’s Good Neighbor Initiative — a program that pledged to lower emissions and flaring events, but whose heart was the buyout program — the company bought 500 properties over the past 15 years. That included most of Diamond, once a vibrant and close-knit community.
The barbershop is gone. The meeting hall is gone. Iris Brown — who has become a vocal Shell agitator, blaming the company for what she believes are her mother's and sister's pollution-related deaths — has left. Ms. Brown now travels nationally and internationally to advocate against Shell. She visited Beaver County last year urging residents to oppose the company's cracker project here. A decade ago, she took the buyout and moved to nearby LaPlace.
St. Charles Parish
But Aaron Brown, her brother, stayed.
He’s no longer sentimental about the land, he said, and would move at the right price. Shell’s offer — even if it was above market value — wouldn’t have been enough for him to buy a decent home in an area that doesn’t flood and where the schools are as good as in St. Charles Parish.
The Louisiana Education Department ranked St. Charles the second best in the state — an honor it split with Ascension Parish, which is home to another cluster of petrochemical plants, including a large Shell operation.
Mr. Brown wanted his daughters in those schools. Now that they’re grown, he’d be more likely to consider a move, he said.
His home, which he shares with his wife, daughter and grandson, is a beige trailer surrounded by fruit trees. He grows blood oranges, tropical grapefruits, lemons, figs and grapes. During some parts of the year, their leaves are stained with black smut, presumably from the nearby plant, he said. His sister finds that disgusting, but Mr. Brown isn’t that bothered. It comes off easily with soap and water, he said.
Does he feel safe in his home?
Mr. Brown hesitated. “I feel kind of safe,” he said. “Not too safe.”
“We just try to keep our ears open and when we hear the sirens, we watch the wind direction, try to stay out of the wind direction and try to keep fuel in our vehicles.”
As Iris Brown surveyed her old stomping grounds, wondering who would choose to live there now, framers were hammering away on a new house a few blocks away. It was beyond Diamond’s borders, but still in Norco, still sandwiched between the two Shell plants.
“You wouldn’t want that around your neighborhood,” Mr. Brown said about the plants. But, “If it’s in your parish, that’s good.”
Needing each other
At just past 10:30 on a Wednesday morning in February, a line of blue coveralls began to snake around the prepared foods counter at Greaud’s Fine Foods in Norco.
It was just weeks until Mardi Gras and the market was stocked with King Cakes — rings of pastry dripping with glaze and sprinkled with purple, green, and gold sugar.
Behind the counter, Greaud’s workers hustled to scoop ribs, macaroni and cheese, greens and grits into disposable trays as the lunch line stretched all the way to the door.
One man in line, hearing a mention of Shell, unbuttoned his coveralls to show off the company’s logo on his T-shirt. He smiled proudly, flashing a row of gold teeth.
Norco is the dictionary definition of a company town. And St. Charles Parish, which includes Norco, is an industry parish. The petrochemical industry makes up the majority of its property tax revenue and sales tax collections, swinging the latter by as much as 25 percent in either direction when times are good or bad.
Last year, the parish had to pull from an accumulated fund balance to cover expenses, but “several major projects have been announced by our local industries that are expected to result in considerable sales tax revenue increases in the budgets of 2017 and 2018,” the budget document said.
As the second-largest employer in the parish behind public schools, Shell is woven into the region in ways that extend beyond its chemical plant. Its engineers, in their work coveralls, read aloud to children at Norco Elementary School, which sits on the fenceline of the west site. They volunteer at the food bank. Last year, they raised more than $1 million for the United Way.
Shell helped create the Norco economic development fund and sponsors the local high school robotics team. Last year, it spent $339,000 on charitable donations in the community.
It has a float in the town’s Christmas parade.
“We need them as much as they need us now,” said Wendy Benedetto, a parish councilwoman from a community to the east of Norco, who said Shell donates a lot of money for pump stations “so we don’t flood.”
Ms. Benedetto is a real estate agent whose work is heating up these days after a prolonged period of wait-and-see — first, as a result of the post-Katrina construction price surges and then from decreased industrial activity following the oil price crash of recent years.
Now that several chemical plants have announced expansions, she’s expecting people to start moving into the area. And she’s not anticipating much squeamishness about living next to industry.
“You do have some of that,” she said, “that people don't want to move next door.”
But for the most part, it hasn’t been in issue. In her entire career, Ms. Benedetto can recall one time when a lender wouldn’t give a loan to a house because it was next to a chemical plant. “It was years ago,” she said. “And it never happened again.”
When the Dixons made it to their new house a few days after the 1988 explosion — a house that once belonged to Ms. Dixon’s grandfather — a Shell representative knocked on the door to survey the damage.
“We were cleaning up,” Mr. Dixon said. “He spent about 15 minutes here and said, ‘If I write you a check for $28,000, will you sign a release?’”
In a heartbeat, Mr. Dixon thought.
The money was far more than what the couple spent on fixing up the house, Ms. Dixon said.
“I wouldn’t have sued,” she said. “But some people did. And they got some money. And when my kids were old enough to drive, all their little friends were buying new cars. We used to call them the Shell cars.”
Accidents happen, Ms. Dixon said. But they don’t keep her up at night.
“Do you fly on airplanes?” she asked rhetorically. “If it’s my time, it’s my time.”
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Advice from Louisiana: How to talk to Shell
Get involved in a CAP meeting
Community advisory panels, pioneered by government agencies, took root in the chemical industry in the early 1990s. Now, they are ubiquitous in southern Louisiana’s chemical corridor and serve as the most direct route to plant managers, who sit on the panels.
CAPs typically include a mix of community leaders and residents, as well as representatives from the chemical plant. The groups meet every month or every few months.
For a company, a community advisory panel is a vehicle to educate people about how the plant works, brag about its community activities and to relay information about possible impacts such as plant maintenance, accidents and monitoring activities.
For residents, it’s a chance to raise issues of concern such as traffic, noise and odors, and to address community needs.
Clarence Moore, a resident of Norco, La., and a member of Shell’s panel there, said he would strongly encourage residents of Beaver County to join a CAP — especially as the new cracker plant is starting up — so they can be kept informed about “little problems with leaks and spills” while the operation gets its bearings.
Michael Marr, Shell’s spokesperson for the Beaver County project, said the company will be looking to pull together a panel similar to those in Louisiana.
Even in communities seasoned with a century of chemical operations, the interaction is useful.
At a recent meeting in which Brett Woltjen, general manager of the Norco Manufacturing Complex, had explained what happened during a unit upset, a woman told him she wasn’t as bothered by the flare as by the steam noise.
When his team looked into it, they found a steam leak unrelated to the incident he was describing.
Because community members know their sights and sounds better than he does, Mr. Woltjen said, the woman’s experience proved a valuable resource for the company to solve a problem it didn’t even know it had.
Community advisory panel meetings are also venues for talking about job opportunities and training programs, said Sam Baker, a member of Shell’s CAP in Geismar, La., for 20 years.
Develop a symbiotic relationship
Charley Stephens, once an elementary school principal, said at one time every school in Ascension Parish, La., was sponsored by a chemical company.
Mr. Stephens’ old school, Marchand Elementary, started the trend in 1994 when BASF “adopted” it, buying supplies, bringing in engineers and building a tele-lecture facility so students could interact with scientists and engineers in other parts of the world.
The relationship helped the schools, but it also helped the plants, Mr. Stephens said, by providing a pipeline of future workers who would be familiar with the industry.
One of the students at Marchand grew up to be the plant manager at a local facility, Mr. Stephens said.
He also found it’s helpful to have plant officials educate the community on what it can expect in terms of job opportunities, both in terms of qualifications and the likelihood of getting a job. That is so applicants aren't discouraged when someone comes back from an interview empty-handed.
Each year, Shell’s Geismar plant gets 1,000 applications for 20 jobs. That could spell a lot of disappointment.
Follow the company across the world
When Aaron Viles, then an environmental activist with the Gulf Restoration Network, was trying to fight a proposed Shell natural gas import terminal, he showed up at the Dutch company’s annual meeting at The Hague in the Netherlands and was welcomed with coffee and chocolates.
“Total charm offensive, right?” Mr. Viles said.
Mr. Viles came to the shareholder meeting as part of a coalition of environmental groups opposing everything from the company’s activities in Nigeria to its contribution to coastal erosion in the Gulf.
The groups met with the CEO and got to present at the annual shareholder meeting.
“There was probably some eye rolling behind the scenes,” he said. “But they always let us have our say.”
Eventually, Shell called off the project that Mr. Viles had been fighting against.
“They said it was an economic decision and that’s probably the primary one,” he conceded. But “when you make these determinations, you know that local support — that’s somewhere on the spreadsheet.”
Mr. Viles thinks part of the reason the environmental groups received the reception they did was because this was happening in the European Union, where standards of corporate behavior and transparency are different from the U.S. He said that on other occasions, when he’s tried to get Shell to bend on regional issues, he’s gotten no response.
Not even a coffee, much less the chocolates.
Advice from Louisiana: How to track health impacts
Go by the smell
Everyone agrees that Norco used to smell bad. And that now it smells a lot better. Much of that improvement can be traced in Shell’s air emission reporting in Louisiana.
For one thing, its west site, which was blamed for some of the worst odors in the area, is now a pared down operation. And the cracker on its east site now uses mostly natural gas, instead of oil-based naphtha as a feedstock. Its toxic emissions have decreased by 46 percent since 2000.
Still, there are occasional smells that may result in health impacts, according to Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant and president of Subra Company, who has been working with communities for decades to determine if their health symptoms are the result of environmental factors.
For some communities, she suggests keeping an odor and symptom log, where residents record and describe when they smell something and track what health impacts they experience during that time. Then, that information can be crossed with records of releases from nearby plants and with spikes in continuous air monitors situated in the community.
Not all chemicals smell. In Beaver County, for example, one of the main gases that Shell will be processing -— ethane -— is odorless.
Follow the numbers, with caution
Even in an area like Louisiana’s southern belt dubbed by some environmentalists as “cancer alley,” there are virtually no scientific studies proving the name to be accurate.
Two of the most cited studies on the issue were co-authored by a Shell physician who concluded that Shell employees and those working in parishes with chemical plants have lower rates of cancer than the general population of Louisiana, where cancer rates are significantly higher than the national average.
But public health experts caution that’s not the whole story.
The problem with epidemiological studies is that to be statistically significant, they have to be large, which dilutes the potential impact of exposure for those living closest to the plants with those living farther away.
And micro health studies, which take a deep dive into a small portion of the population, tend not to be statistically significant, even if they show a disproportionate prevalence of certain illnesses.
Also, studies tend to jump straight to cancer. But other ailments might be more closely associated with compromised air quality, like respiratory problems, rashes, headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, and dizziness, Ms. Subra said. “There can be very disabling impacts,” she said.
Monitor the air, where it’s available.
While several people who live in Norco said they were comforted to know that there are multiple air monitors in the community taking stock of what’s coming out of the plant, there is only one continuous monitor operating today.
Its readings, which measure the concentration of hydrocarbons other than methane, are posted on a website, but the counter at the bottom of the page suggests it’s not a popular community resource. The data has been viewed fewer than 230 times in the past six years.
Much more data is available in denser format on the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality website and in annual reporting to the Environmental Protection Agency, through the Toxic Release Inventory.
In Beaver County, Shell has so far declined to include fenceline monitors at its facility, instead pointing to several EPA monitoring stations in neighboring communities that already exist.
One, which will be located at Beaver Valley Mall downwind of the cracker plant, will measure for volatile organic compounds and lead. Another, in Brighton Township, will track ozone and sulfur dioxide and a third in Beaver Falls will monitor for ozone, particulates and nitrogen oxides.
Reporting Anya Litvak
email@example.com | 412-263-1455
Photography Andrew Rush
Design & Development Zack Tanner
Animation Graphics James Hilston & Ed Yozwick