Shell Chemicals has officially started construction on its $6 billion ethane cracker plant in Potter Township, a project that will take several years to complete.

POTTER TWP. — Shell Chemicals has officially started construction on its $6 billion ethane cracker plant, a project that will take several years to complete.

The announcement Wednesday marks the next step in a massive project that dates back to March 2012, when Shell announced that the Potter Township site was one of several it was considering for its new ethane cracker facility.

Shell made it official in June last year when it announced a final investment decision on the plant. Since then, crews have been working around the clock to prepare the site for main construction.

That site preparation was a massive undertaking by the company, which moved 7.2 million cubic yards of dirt and completely transformed the site, which previously held the Horsehead Corp. zinc smelter.

In addition, more than 4,200 steel pilings were installed for foundations across the property, while Shell also built new bridges, rail lines and relocated state Route 18 in front of the plant.

Now that the site is fully prepped for construction, another massive transformation to the landscape is set to take place as the actual plant is constructed.

“Today marks an important step forward for this major growth project,” said Graham van’t Hoff, executive vice president for Shell’s global chemicals business. “The preparation phase went well and our focus is now on ensuring first-class construction. Shell’s commercial, engineering and manufacturing expertise will help make this project a great success.”

The construction will include the building of four gigantic processing units that include one ethane cracker and three polyethylene units. The ethane cracker will be the largest part of the plant with more than 200 major components and 95 miles of pipe.


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In addition, the company will build a 250-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, which will produce electricity and steam to run the cracker plant. About one-third of the electricity produced at the site will help supply the local electrical grid.

Finally, Shell will construct a 900-foot-long cooling tower, rail and truck loading facilities, a new water-treatment plant, an office building and a laboratory.

The facility is expected to utilize shale gas from the Marcellus and Utica basins to produce 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year. That polyethylene will be used to make a wide array of products from food packaging to furniture to sports equipment, according to Shell.

At its peak, the project will require 6,000 construction workers, while 600 permanent jobs will be created when the plant becomes operational early next decade.

Tom Lee, the current construction manager for the project, said Wednesday morning about 1,000 workers are currently on site as the project transitions to a main-works phase. That number will eventually grow to 6,000 workers at its peak, which is expected to happen sometime in 2019.

Lee said the project won’t “go vertical,” meaning the construction of actual structures, until about April of next year.

He also said crews will only be working weekdays at the site, although weekend work could happen if inclement weather stalls progress during the weekdays.

Shell spokesman Joe Minnitte added Wednesday that while the casual observer won’t notice drastic changes, the transition that took place Wednesday is a huge step for the project.

“From yesterday to today, people might not see much difference at the site,” he said. “But this is a very significant move for the project.”

The announcement of main-works construction received praise from various entities across the area, including the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, an economic-development group that has worked with Shell from the beginning.

In a statement, the organization’s president congratulated Shell for the advancement of the project, but also looked back at all the progress that’s been made up until this point.

“This progress would not have been possible without numerous key public and private sector partners who worked in extraordinary cooperation to first attract Shell to southwestern Pennsylvania and who now continue to support making this once-in-a-generation investment a reality and an economic driver for the greater region,” President David Ruppersberger said.

He added that the cracker plant will “serve as an anchor for the greater region’s downstream” business opportunities in the future.