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Surveying the Ohio River for plastic nurdles, as Shell readies to open cracker

Captain Evan Clark, the Three Rivers Waterkeeper, takes a "nurdle patrol" crew out on the Ohio River, near Shell's new ethane cracker plant.
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Captain Evan Clark, the Three Rivers Waterkeeper, takes a "nurdle patrol" crew out on the Ohio River, near Shell's new ethane cracker plant.

Shell plans to begin operations this summer at its new industrial complex along the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The plant will use ethane produced at the region’s natural gas wells to make tiny polyethylene plastic pellets, which some people call nurdles.

They’re used to make many kinds of plastic products.

But nurdles can also end up in waterways, which is why environmental groups, working with local researchers, have started searching for nurdles in the water near the plant. They’re trying to establish a baseline of what’s in the Ohio now, and will continue to survey the river after the plant opens, so they can tell if nurdles from the plant are getting into the river.

Plastic in the region’s rivers

Captain Evan Clark says he’s pulled out more than a million pounds of trash from Pittsburgh’s rivers over the past 15 years with Allegheny Cleanways, and millions more pounds along the shorelines. He’s amazed at how much of it is plastic.

Now, Clark is with the Three Rivers Waterkeeper and regularly leads cleanup groups.

“For our volunteers, the eye-opening experience of seeing that such a massive percent of what we pull out of the river is plastics is really eye-opening and educational,” Clark said, standing behind the wheel of the group’s boat.

They find things like the plastic film that covers cigarette packs, fleece clothing, grocery store bags, and soda bottles.

Clark pulls to the side of the Ohio River, at the boat launch in Monaca, a few miles upriver from Shell’s ethane cracker. He’s bundled up in waders, with a hoodie pulled over his head to protect him from the wind.

Eric Harder, the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper with the Mountain Watershed Association, is among a few others waiting to get on board. “Most people do not know what a nurdle was when I first would tell them about it,” Harder said.

What are nurdles?

Nurdles are the size of a lentil. They’re the raw material used by manufacturers to make other plastic products. It takes more than 350 nurdles for one yogurt cup, and over a thousand nurdles to make a soda bottle.

Shell’s ethane cracker on April 4, 2022.
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Shell’s ethane cracker on April 4, 2022.

When Shell’s multi-billion dollar ethane cracker opens, it will produce 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets a year.

“Most people, I tell them that the cracker plant looks like an engineering masterpiece, and it does look amazing, like someone took a long time to design it all,” Harder said. “But it does, you know, make plastics.”

When those trillions of tiny plastic bits are transferred onto trains and trucks, they can spill. This has happened in places like Texas and Louisiana, where nurdles wind up in waterways and on shorelines.

With the nurdles, it’s really important to understand how much of the product might be slipping into our river systems,” said Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, who is also on the boat.

Fish and birds can ingest these microplastics. Researchers have found that other pollutants bind to them in the water. The environmental groups are collecting nurdles now, to build a baseline of plastics in the river, so they can tell if there are any spills from the cracker plant after it opens.

Nurdle Patrol Protocol 

They stop the boat, and using a metal pole, Eric Harder lowers a large sock-like filter onto the water. “And then we just sit and wait for ten minutes,” he explained.

As the sock floats along the surface, it catches debris.

They are following a procedure similar to the shoreline nurdle surveying protocol for citizens, developed at the University of Texas, Austin.

After 10 minutes, Harder pulls the filter sock out of the water and empties the contents through a filter into a bucket. Among the twigs and other debris, they find a couple of squishy white balls. It’s styrofoam, not nurdles.

Then they pour the debris through a smaller sieve, “And then kind of visually inspect everything, and usually, right away we’ll be able to see a nurdle that’s fallen out of there,” Harder said.

“Nothing here,” said James Cato of Mountain Watershed Association, as he looks through, “seems like maybe another little piece of styrofoam.”

They go through this protocol at five different spots spanning the width of the river, and at various locations up and downriver of the Shell plant.

After one filtering, Cato points out a piece of harder, more dense plastic: a nurdle. It’s a gray-yellowish color. He keeps looking through the debris and sees a newer-looking nurdle.

James Cato, Mountain Watershed Association, sifts through the debris and finds a nurdle.
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
James Cato, Mountain Watershed Association, sifts through the debris and finds a nurdle.

“This one is perfectly round, and it still has that kind of glowing quality. The other ones are yellowed, and they’ve been eroded down into more irregular shapes. So who knows how long they’ve been out here,” he said.

Cato opens a box of new amber-colored vials, sent to them by a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Amber vials will help preserve the chemical contents that are absorbed by the microplastics.

Cato opens a vial and drops in one of the nurdles they found. They’ll send it to researchers at local universities to analyze.

Captain Evan Clark tracks the crew’s route along the Ohio River.
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Captain Evan Clark tracks the crew’s route along the Ohio River.

A lab at the University of Pittsburgh will analyze whether other sources of pollution may be concentrating on the surface of nurdles. At Penn State Behrend, researchers will look at the chemical makeup of nurdles they collect. Duquesne University will be collecting fish and sampling for nurdles in fish guts, and the West Virginia Water Resources Institute will survey the river’s conventional water quality parameters.

This new partnership is funded by The Heinz Endowments. (The Allegheny Front receives funding from The Heinz Endowments and Duquesne University.)

Eric Harder says now, with the researchers’ help, they have developed a more scientifically valid protocol. “When it was just one person being like, ‘Oh, let’s look here for some nurdles.’ And, ‘Oh, I found some, it must be from them,’ ” he said. “It’s a lot different from now when we have university scientists.”

Researchers want citizen scientists to survey for nurdles too

The coalition is also working on a map to share with the public, to create guidance for citizens who want to partake in scientifically valid nurdle surveys as well.

The researchers want volunteers to follow the University of Texas protocol by visually inspecting for nurdles in designated locations. If a nurdle is detected within 10 minutes, citizens are to continue surveying for an additional 10 minutes. They are asked to collect all nurdles they observe and report their findings into the nurdle patrol database.

Shell and regulators respond 

In an email, Shell’s spokesperson said the pellets produced at the plant “cannot be allowed to make their way into local waterways under any circumstances,” and that the company built multiple barriers to capture any plastics that may spill at the plant. It has joined Operation Clean Sweep, an industry program designed to ensure containment of plastic pellets and other products, like plastic flakes and powder.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said in an email that the plastic pellets are regulated under the state’s Clean Streams Law, and under the Solid Waste Management Act, and that the Shell plant will be subject to regular inspections.

Still, Captain Evan Clark says the more nurdle patrols they do, and the more people hear about it, the better.

Not only just to Shell but to everybody else who’s interested in this in the plastic issue, seeing that people are taking it seriously enough to spend the time and the money to be out here doing the work does a ton to just raise the visibility,” he said.

And the more eyes on Shell, he says, the more likely it will be careful not to pollute the river.

The Allegheny Front is produced in Pittsburgh and reports on the environment.

Julie Grant covers agricultural issues for the Allegheny Front—exploring what we eat, who produces it and how it’s related to the natural environment.