Shell officials said the company will temporarily suspend construction of its ethane cracker plant in Beaver County after pressure from workers and county officials concerned that the number of people on-site and the crowded conditions could lead to the spread of the coronavirus.
Shell made the announcement Wednesday after workers had complained to officials and the media in published reports about the working conditions, including crowded buses and lunch tents and unsanitary conditions. As many as 8,000 workers are at the site, one of the largest construction projects in the U.S.
Gov. Tom Wolf had ordered all non-essential businesses shut down and said there should be no large gatherings as residents practice “social distancing” to try to slow down the spread of the contagious new COVID-19 virus. One person in Beaver County had been diagnosed with the virus as of Thursday, and a dozen others had been reported in Allegheny County. Numbers were expected to spike in the coming days.
Hillary Mercer, vice president of Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals, said in a news release published by WPXIthat the company was suspending all construction effective immediately while it worked to install “additional mitigation features aligned with CDC guidance.” Once those are in place, the company will consider a phased resumption of construction activity.
Mercer said the health of its workers and the community were the company’s top priority.
The announcement came after an online petition was posted on change.org urging the shutdown of the site.
“The Shell cracker plant is one of the largest employers in the area. With social separation not possible on buses, lunch tents, and work trailers, it is irresponsible for the plant to remain open. With a confirmed case now in Beaver County, the plant should be shut down along with all other non-essential businesses for the safety of our citizens. The highly infectious coronavirus will spread like wildfire through the plant if action is not taken,” the petition states. It has gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
Also on Wednesday, Beaver County commissioners held a press conference to urge the company to stop work.
“No business, regardless of size, is immune to the virus,” Commissioner Dan Camp said in a videotaped statement. “The Shell site shall not be granted some self-unilateral exception to the controls our governor has put in place.” He said the shutdown was imperative to protect the health of workers and residents.
It was not immediately known when work at the plant site might resume.