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👀 From Clairton to Potter Township, locals are watching polluters

🏭 Shell’s chemical plant in Potter Township has alarmed some locals. With a potentially explosive combination of petrochemical infrastructure, dense housing and lax regulation, some fear environmental disasters on the scale of February’s Norfolk Southern derailment could happen here. In response, individuals and advocacy groups have adopted low-lift strategies to monitor pollution — in some cases, simply by watching smoke rise from factory chimneys.

🏭 Smoke reading is a simple way to see if polluters are following the rules. By checking the opacity of the plumes wafting from plants like Clairton, locals can see if these facilities are following county regulations. As public pressure has mounted, US Steel has opted to close the three oldest coke batteries at Clairton. Groups including GASP continue to watch the plant and push for greater transparency (and less pollution).

🏭 Meanwhile, technology is playing a role in watchdogs’ work. PurpleAir monitors, summa canisters and online databases have all played a role in corroborating smoke readings and collecting info that’s beyond what human eyes and noses can detect. Crowdsourced maps have further helped locals take agency in fighting pollution. Meanwhile, groups including ACCAN have used these methods to lower pollution from Neville Island’s industrial area, and now groups including BCMAC and Breathe Project are applying these lessons to the Shell plant in Potter Township.

🏭 Local regulators are in a tricky spot when it comes to this work. On the one hand, citizen welfare is paramount; on the other hand, working with local industry is also part of regional bureaucracy. In Allegheny County, the health department has improved transparency around hydrogen sulfide emissions while moving citizen complaints to an online portal. Beaver County, which lacks a health department, has seen fewer coordinated efforts on a county level.

🏭 Instead, Beaver County residents are working with the state DEP and federal EPA to try and get a handle on Shell’s potential impact — the plant has polluted and flared beyond what residents expected, creating anxiety. Armed with air-quality monitors, air and water samples, cameras and even exhibitions and documentaries, locals are keeping the pressure on by refusing to look away. If you live near the Shell plant and notice anything unusual, Eyes on Shell encourages you to report the incident to their 24-hour hotline (724-923-3244) or reach out on social media.

Read our full investigation on the Ambridge Connection’s website.