Activists warn of dangers in petro-chemical expansion here

Mark Dixon, a filmmaker and activist from Pittsburgh, spoke to attendees of an Aug. 29 town hall at the Limestone Township fire hall. Dixon gave insights on what he believes are the ill effects of the petrochemical industry in the region, focusing on a Shell ethylene cracker plant under construction in Beaver County.

LIMESTONE - Spin-off industries from the Shell "cracker plant" in Beaver County would not be beneficial to the health of Clarion County according to a Pittsburgh-area activist.

About 100 people attended a town hall meeting sponsored by the West Central Pennsylvania chapter of Indivisible We Rise, The League of Women Voters of Clarion County, and PEACE (Protect Environment and Children Everywhere) on Thursday, Aug. 329 at the Limestone Fire Hall in Clarion.

The meeting's keynote speaker, Mark Dixon of NoPetroPA, detailed his research and findings on the petrochemical industry's relationship with the environment at large.

Dixon's presentation included potential negative effects, which could be felt as a result of a Shell ethylene "cracker plant" under construction in Beaver County.

The idea for the program was initiated after Indivisible We Rise committee members became concerned about the petrochemical industry potentially becoming prevalent in Clarion and Venango counties in the future.

IWR steering committee member Tabby Shah told those in attendance the group had invited several local and state representatives to the town hall, including the Clarion County commissioners, state Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R-21), state Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-63) and U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-15).

Clarion County Commissioner Ed Heasley, Clarion Borough Mayor Bill Miller and County Commissioner hopeful Braxton White were in attendance.

Shah summed up the questions she hoped would be answered by Dixon during his presentation.

"In the recent past, the fracking boom was pressed upon us as the answer to all our woes," Shah said at the onset of the program. "In its wake, some communities struggle. Some have contaminated water supplies. We have studies based in our own state showing that children born within a mile or two of a fracked well were more likely to be smaller and less healthy."

Shah continued, "As the petrochemical industries have recently courted our elected officials and us with their latest promises of energy independence and economic renewal, we noticed there was a lack of transparency for the public about how this build-up would affect our health.

"How would it affect our farms and our businesses that all depend on a clean environment and what is being sacrificed to make way for this new push?"

Dixon's presentation followed. He noted previous film works he had created, including the documentary YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip), where he traveled through 50 states and interviewed hundreds of subjects on environmental issues.

A resident of Pittsburgh, Dixon has studied the potential environmental effects of the operation of the Shell ethane cracker plant.

President Donald Trump visited the plant on Aug. 13.

Dixon told the crowd the plant is designed to take ethane, a bi-product of the fracking process, to crack into ethylene, which can be turned into polyethylene, a common form of plastic.

The Shell facility is expected to produce around one and a half million tons of plastic annually according to Dixon.

United Nations investigative studies at ten out of 15 Shell Petroleum Development Corporation remediation sites in Nigeria recorded as being complete also reported there was still pollution exceeding SPDC and government remediation closure values.

The study also found contamination at eight of these sites had migrated from the ground up, as was mentioned by Dixon during the presentation.

"This is the neighbor that we chose in South Western Pennsylvania to hang out with us, to tell us how it's going to be and to get buddy-buddy with our politicians," Dixon said.

According to National Public Radio, Pennsylvania gave Shell a 25-year, $1.64 billion tax credit to build the plant.

Dixon said the facility will add significant amounts of volatile organic compounds into the air. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has permitted the facility to emit 522 tons of VOCs annually.

Dixon also broached the Falcon Pipeline, a currently unbuilt 97-mile common carrier pipeline located in Southwestern Pennsylvania and extending into Eastern Ohio and West Virginia.

According to Shell's website, the system will connect three major ethane source points in Pennsylvania and Ohio within the rich gas portions of the Marcellus and Utica shale reservoirs. It will initially connect to the petrochemical facility in Beaver County.

Dixon said the pipeline's blast zone runs "dangerously close" to 550 family homes, 20 businesses, 240 groundwater wells, 12 public parks, six daycare centers, six emergency response centers and the Montour trail.

According to Dixon, Shell also has the second worst pipeline safety record in the United States.

According to Environmental Health News, Shell has identified 25 locations prone to landslides in or near the route of the pipeline. Fourteen of those locations are in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

In 2015, Dixon attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris as a citizen journalist. In conjunction with climate research he has undergone since 2006, Dixon presented findings, which included the rise of sea levels because of increasing global temperatures.

Dixon said rising sea levels could affect Pennsylvanians in a way some may not have considered. He prefaced his thoughts by mentioning he lives near Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, just a few blocks away from the site of the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting.

"I feel that some of the anxiety and angst that led to that shooting emerges from immigrants and the way we perceive and treat our immigrants and talk about them in the United States," Dixon said. "We struggle with that narrative in this country. Some of our politicians really like to dig in and blame them for lots of problems.

"If that approach to immigrants holds and sea levels continue to rise, we have 760 million going on one billion people potentially displaced due to climate change concerns. A billion people sloshing around the globe looking for a home with different colors and different cultures than you. What will that do to our democracy? What will that do to our safety, culture and communities?

Dixon also countered concerns that fighting against regional influences of the petrochemical industry could erase a possibility of jobs being induced through plants like the one in Beaver County. He noted the introduction of such factories could create a negative ripple effect economically.

"Yes, we do need jobs," Dixon said. "I'm concerned that in the face of a petrochemical hub like this the potential for other types of industries to take off will be limited. If there's a young person considering an entrepreneurial endeavor and it's not petrochemicals, will they be inclined to move into an area that's surrounded by petrochemicals and pro petrochemical politicians, especially in an era where we're seeing green development and renewable energies rise?

Dixon went on, saying he believed the issue is more nuanced than a binary trade-off involving whether jobs would be produced or not.

"I'd much rather see an organic, thriving and diverse ecosystem of businesses, then petrochemicals and anyone else who can squeeze in that doesn't mind massive amounts of pollution," Dixon said.

The speaker also mentioned the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s as a warning to what could become a reality because of continued reliance on fossil fuels. Dixon explained he hopes all sides of the issue come together before another economic downfall occurs.

"The more singular our industrial choices are, the more susceptible we are to a climate collapse in the future," said Dixon. "Knowing right now that we have a climate without room in the atmosphere to make methane, to burn fossil fuels and emit Co2, why would we consider building a foundation for students excited about petrochemicals when climate scientists say there's no more room in the atmosphere for any Co2?"

Public feedback

Corsica resident Jeff Huffman said his son has worked to construct the plant in Beaver County. Huffman believes the petrochemical industry's expansion would be an economic godsend to an area in need of well-paying jobs.

"He wasn't making the money he wanted to make here," Huffman said. "There's 6,000 people working on that place right now. He's making a wonderful living at this. I want to him to move up here but there's nothing here to hold him."

David Wells, an employee at Clarion Boards Inc. reiterated Huffman's comments.

"We're hoping if this does go through (the Beaver County plant), it provides jobs, and the DEP is on top of it, that maybe Clarion County can get a Tupperware factory or a tote factory," Wells said. "We are close (to the plant). We're on a major interstate highway. This place is so depressed. If everybody here is so worried about plastic, where was everybody when the county commissioners weren't there for the glass factory and Sealy Mattress?"

Dixon said he believed creativity was needed in order to find ways to create jobs that wouldn't become available at the expense of public health.

(Renewable energy) jobs are going to be more stable because they're not suffering from glut the way that they are with frack natural gas," Dixon said. "I love the idea of growing hemp. You don't really have to apply a lot of pesticides in hemp, if any, so that's much better for the workers who are growing them. The hemp is usable in a wide range of products.

Dixon also mentioned the engineering field known as green chemistry, which he said uses the same types of manufacturing and infrastructure that would create jobs while eliminating the use of hazardous substances. Ultimately, Dixon believes innovations combining fiscal success with safety as a top priority should be at the forefront of the region's future goals.

"What is the foundation that we collectively want to build so that we can transcend these age old debates of jobs vs. the environment," Dixon said. "I think the real work in this community and so many other communities in the region is how can we hand our children a legacy in which jobs vs. the environment is no longer a meaningful debate? What does that look like?"