Environmental Justice

Black Cracks and the Petrochemical Buildout of Western PA

By Patricia M. DeMarco, Ph.D

On January 15, 2019 over 150 concerned citizens
gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Mt. Lebanon to hear about advances of the petrochemical industry based on liquid hydrocarbons extracted by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. While people hear about fracking for gas, it is less apparent that liquids extracted from most of the formations in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania become plastics. The Shell Appalachia “cracker” plant is the first proposed such facility – the intended initial point for a massive infrastructure designed to make plastic precursors for mostly single-use plastic packaging materials. There were five presentations addressing comprehensive aspects of the proposed petrochemical buildout in western PA.
Matthew Mehalik, Executive Director of the Breathe Collaborative listed the following concerns about the petrochemical industry expansion into Western Pennsylvania:

1. For the last two years Western PA had poor air quality on 249 days of the year.

2. The industry has used a “normalization of deviance” to slowly accustom people to their activities. Of the 11,682 hydraulic fracturing wells drilled in PA there have been 13,656 well and site violations!

3. The pollution increases from this proposed industrial hub will be substantial, as evidenced by the industry profile in Louisiana and Texas.

4. With over two million tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions allowed under granted permits, this industry is a climate change disaster.

5. Health effects from emissions are anticipated in Beaver County alone to range from $20 to $46 million annually. If all three proposed facilities are built as planned, the health effects in Beaver County will mount to $616 million to $1.6 billion.

6. This industry already presents a significant financial burden to Pennsylvania residents. Shell Appalachia was granted a $1.6 billion package of tax benefits over 25 years. Including the environmental and social impact of the petrochemical industry adds $6.1 billion to the region’s costs.

7. Job projections by the industry are misleading. Most of the jobs will be out of state, temporary construction jobs, and much of the production in the facility will be displaced by automation.

8. The petrochemical industry converting natural gas liquids to plastic precursors is the only scenario in which the industry can see a profit. The U.S. shale oil industry has burned through a quarter trillion more dollars than it has brought in over the last decade.

9. The large amounts of money spent in Pennsylvania to influence shale oil and gas industry legislation erodes democracy. Severance taxes have been minimized, protections to communities have been limited or eliminated, and people have been threatened for complaining or speaking out.

Patricia DeMarco, Forest Hills Borough Council

The petrochemical industry is relocating from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas as climate refugees fleeing the devastation of repeated hurricanes and coastal storms. With proximity to the Marcellus and Utica shale fields, accessible because of seven exemptions in the federal laws that would have protected drinking water and air quality as well as worker safety, the industry has staked out Western Pennsylvania for development. Plastic production for packaging is the primary target output. The problem of plastic waste is only expected to grow as plastic production increases exponentially—from a mere two million metric tons annually in 1950 to more than 300 million metric tons today, and a projected 33 billion metric tons each year by 2050. Plastics are made of long-lived polymers; they do not break down easily in the environment, neither in landfills nor in the oceans. Plastics are not readily broken down by biological systems- they are indigestible and provide no nutrition when introduced into food chains. Nearly all the plastic ever made is still in the biosphere.

Worldwide, factories produce 400 million tons of plastic per year, with plastic bottles produced at a rate of 20,000 per second. Globally, 60% of all plastics ever produced are accumulating in landfills or in the natural environment. Americans discard 33.6 million tons of plastic a year; only 6.5% of plastic is recycled for re-use, and 7.7% is burned in trash to energy facilities. The ubiquitous contamination of the earth from man-made plastics presents a system problem. We need to seek a systematic solution.

The problem of global pollution from plastics has three components: 1. Economic Issues; 2. Environmental and Health Issues; and 3. Ethics Issues. We have built a society that uses plastics designed to last forever for materials that have a useful life of only minutes – plastic bags, coffee cup lids, straws. We must decide whether we shape our society for the short-term profits of a few petrochemical industries or preserve a viable environment to support our children forever.

Robert Schmetzer, Chairman of the Beaver County Marcellus Community and Citizens to Protect Ambridge Reservoir. He gave press documentation of evidence for radioactive contamination of water from shale gas drilling and disposal of produced water” for road dust and ice control.

Terri Baumgartner, Beaver County Activist, organizer with Clean Air Council and member of Beaver Marcellus Community and Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir spoke of the health harms from both fracking and the petrochemical plant. She raised several pointed questions: “As for the Beaver County cracker this toxic air soup will serve, how many average citizens know that if it goes online it will release more than 30 tons/year of hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, linked to cancer and childhood leukemia, and tolulene, linked to brain, liver, and kidney problems; and to spontaneous abortion and birth defects? How many know that the cracker’s 159 tons/year of particulate matter (PM 2.5) would provoke cardiovascular and respiratory disease, as well as lung cancer and bladder cancer? How many know that the cracker would emit more formaldehyde, the No. 2 cancer driver from air pollution in SWPA, than the Clairton Coke Works How many know that it would emit 3 times what the Clairton Coke Works emits in volatile organic compounds – cancer-causing VOCs that help create asthma-intensifying ozone?”

Thaddeus Popovich spoke of the hazards to both workers and community residents from the fine sand used in the fracking process. With severe effects similar to black lung from coal mining, people who breathe the fine powdered sand develop silicosis, an unexpected consequence of the petrochemical invasion.

For a fuller discussion of these issues, see https://patriciademarco.com/2018/12/21/ re-thinking-plastics-in-our-future/

Patricia DeMarco is a member of the Forest
Hills Borough Council

(TMC newspaper VOL. 49 No. 2 March 2019. All rights reserved.)

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