Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC continues to plow ahead on its multi-billion dollar ethane cracker in western Pennsylvania, with nearly all of the foundations completed for the 200 structures that will form the self-contained site and major equipment arriving regularly, an executive overseeing the project said Monday.  

Shell and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) again shut down the Vanport Bridge in Beaver County near the 386-acre site to deliver the facility’s massive quench tower. At about 300 feet, the structure is roughly the size of a football field. It was shipped last month via barge up the Ohio River to the site’s recently constructed dock. The bridge, which carries Interstate 376 over the river into Vanport Township, was closed as a precaution given the tower’s size.

“It is huge...Our entire docking system at the plant was designed to accommodate this piece of equipment,” said Shell’s Hilary Mercer, vice president of the Pennsylvania Chemicals unit during a presentation at the Northeast U.S. Petrochemical Construction conference in Pittsburgh.

“For anybody who was inconvenienced, I’m really, really sorry,” she said of the closure. “But it did end up closing for 60 minutes. We managed because of the pre-planning, because of the 3-D visualization we had done; we managed to get that down to 60 minutes to move underneath the bridge and then do all of the post-movement analysis of the bridge by PennDOT and then re-open the bridge to the public.”

The quenching tower is a key component and is used early in the process to make the pellets to be sold for plastics conversion. After ethane is fed into a furnace to be cracked into ethylene, it is then fed to the water-based quench tower where other reactions are stopped to prevent undesirable byproducts. Mercer said the tower would be lifted into place with a crane said to be the world’s third largest.

Mercer, who last oversaw Royal Dutch Shell plc’s Prelude project in Australia, an offshore floating liquefied natural gas facility, described the massive project in Pennsylvania as a data-driven endeavor. A drone flies over the site each week to take “thousands upon thousands of photographs” to help monitor progress and make preparations for the next stages.

The facility, which is expected to enter service in the early 2020s, is designed to consume a little more than 100,000 b/d of ethane to produce 1.5 million metric tons/year (mmty) of ethylene and 1.6 mmty of polyethylene.  It would be largely self-contained, with a gas-fired power plant, water treatment facility and emergency response team.

Late last year, Shell transitioned from site remediation and early works, such as sewage, electricity and foundations, to the primary construction phase during which the actual plant is to be built.

“We’ve transitioned a heavily contaminated heavy metals smelter site,” Mercer said. “This site is nothing like it was three years ago, let alone five years ago, and we have concluded a huge Act 2 remediation effort,” referring to a state land recycling program to revitalize brownfield sites. The location, which straddles the Ohio River in Potter and Center townships about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, was once home to a zinc smelting plant.

The company has also revived the Shell Polymers brand, which it had dropped after exiting most of its plastics businesses. The Pennsylvania ethane cracker plans to operate under the new name in a nod to the work Shell is doing to reestablish the company in the space.  

Shell is now hiring for its first 40 operator positions to begin training personnel ahead of start-up, Mercer said. The facility is ultimately expected to employ 600 people once it enters service.