Have environmentalists lost their battle to thwart the petrochemical industry in Southwest PA?
Construction of Shell’s ethane cracker plant in Beaver County is in full swing. The 97-mile Falcon pipeline has obtained the state permits it needs to feed ethane to the plant. And the state recently announced that Pennsylvania's fracking wells produced more than ever before in 2017.
These accomplishments all appear to be stepping stones toward cementing Southwestern Pennsylvania and the state at large as the next hub for the natural gas and petrochemical industry.
With this in mind, PublicSource interviewed a Shell representative along with seven other people who have different perspectives on the future of our region’s environment and industry.
We asked: Have the environmental groups achieved anything in their opposition? Has the state fulfilled its responsibilities to guard our air and water? And, has the gas and petrochemical industry become too powerful in Pennsylvania or are they heading for financial hardship?
‘A MEANINGFUL WAY’
Ray Fisher is a spokesperson at Royal Dutch Shell, the parent of Shell Chemicals that is constructing a large ethane cracker plant in Beaver County.
Shell organized many community meetings to inform residents in communities around the Shell ethane cracker and the Falcon pipeline about construction and to address concerns about air, water quality and community impacts, Fisher wrote in an email. The company made their experts available, providing “the opportunity to have individual questions from the public answered in a meaningful way with experts in their field.”
Fisher said the feedback from residents helped Shell shape the cracker plant project over the last seven years.
As of January 2019, he said Shell is employing about 3,500 people in the construction of the cracker. The job count is projected to increase to 6,000 later this year. The cracker plant, when complete, will employ about 600 full-time staff members who live in the local community.
Fisher showed little doubt about how the community feels about the cracker plant. “Since our announcement, we have enjoyed the strong support of the local community along with the local, county and state officials.” He added that Shell does not make financial contributions to state legislators.
About environmental concerns, Fisher wrote: “During permitting, Shell worked extensively through the processes established by the [Pennsylvania] Department of Environmental Protection to ensure our facility deploys the best available control technology and operates to the lowest achievable emission rate.”
NOT A DONE DEAL
Terrie Baumgardner is a field organizer for the Clean Air Council, a member-supported environmental organization, and a member of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community [BC-MAC].
“The industry wants people to think that the cracker is a done deal now,” Baumgardner said. “But on behalf of vigilant citizens going forward, we will be pushing back for full accountability and transparency at every phase, every step of permitting.”
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, Shell still needs to apply for a Title V operating permit after the agency has confirmed that all air emission sources are meeting the conditions of the permit.
Baumgardner said she believes it makes sense to keep delaying the completion of the cracker. “I think there’s a chance that if we can slow things down, we will reach a tipping point when the investors wake up to the major economic vulnerabilities of the cracker project.”
She’s referring to the poor stock market performance, bankruptcies and layoffs that roiled the industry in the last year.
Baumgardner pointed out that the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project worked for two years on a lawsuit that eventually led Shell to agree to the installation of fenceline monitoring at the cracker. “I think that was a significant win for the community,” Baumgardner said. With fenceline monitoring in place, people in the area near the cracker will be able to see through an online portal what emissions are coming across the fence.
According to Baumgardner, the support from the Clean Air Council also helped Potter Township obtain important quality-of-life concessions from Shell regarding light, noise and dust pollution. “Clean Air Council and residents living near the cracker plant will hold Shell accountable by reporting violations of local dust, noise and lighting permits.”
Baumgardner said she believes the gas and petrochemical sector is becoming too big of a political force in Pennsylvania. “It’s no secret that they lobby extensively at the state level,” she said. “In 2017, they spent $5.2 million on lobbying state officials.”
An analysis done in 2017 by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that gas drilling companies and their industry groups spent at least $46.6 million on lobbying in the period 2010 to 2017. In the same years, they spent another $14.5 million on donations to state representatives in Harrisburg.
Baumgardner said environmental groups are beginning to organize regionally to push back on the industry in a unified manner. “Right now, BC-MAC is forming alliances with groups of concerned citizens in Ohio and West Virginia. We went to Belmont County, Ohio where another cracker is planned.”
Kenneth Broadbent is business manager of the Steamfitters Local 449, a union that currently has 450 members — fitters and welders — working on the construction of Shell’s cracker plant.
“I’m not going to compromise on jobs,” Broadbent said. “I would sooner have a job and accept some bad environmental downside for it because when people are working you have less crime, less drugs and alcohol abuse, less family problems. So, those environmental groups do have the wrong priorities. They don’t realize that jobs are the most important thing.”
Broadbent gives environmental groups some credit for fighting for the environment. "We want the water clean. We want the air clean. We hunt and fish here and we have families that live here.” He explained that scrubbing pollutants from plants and making industrial processes cleaner benefits the members of his union. “The steamfitters are getting man hours out of making plants cleaner.”
He added: “We’re environmentalists ourselves, but you’ve got to be able to eat. The biggest thing in life is making sure your kids are having as good a life as you with a decent wage and health coverage. We’re partnering with the natural gas industry because it creates good jobs. We need all the infrastructure for this thing to grow, so we can hopefully be the next Louisiana.”
Louisiana is the premier petrochemical hub in the United States. The environmental groups call it 'cancer alley.’
Broadbent doesn’t appreciate environmentalists from outside of the region telling his union what to do. “Why should we listen to environmentalists coming from other states to fight the cracker plant? We live next to it. Why should somebody from two hours away, from another state, prevent my members from making a living?”
Environmental groups have opposed the construction of the Mariner East 2, a pipeline that will carry natural gas liquids from Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania to a processing and export terminal in Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. Broadbent said the pipeline stands to rejuvenate the processing plant in Marcus Hook, which he believes could result in 2,000 temporary jobs for steamfitters.
Broadbent doesn’t want to single out the gas industry, but he does believe there should be rules to limit the amounts of money big companies can spend on political campaigns. “You never want big business to be able to sway our democratic process with money.”
A LONG LIFE OVER RICHES
Selena Moreland is director of ROOTS, an organization in Aliquippa that helps people experiencing homelessness and people in recovery from addiction.
Moreland lives in Aliquippa, about 5 miles south of Shell’s cracker plant. “My organization is always busy trying to find affordable housing for the homeless, but housing is limited now. The cost of renting is going up because landlords are renting out to the people that are coming in from out of state to work on the construction of the cracker.”
Moreland sees pros and cons to the cracker. “I think the cracker can be an asset to the economy with the jobs it provides, but I’m concerned about the pollution and the health effects for people in the area.”
Her concerns are partly based on the way her grandfather lived and died. “My grandfather worked at the J&L steel mill in Aliquippa. Because of his work, he ended up with the black lung disease. So, after he retired, he was financially secure, but he died.
“If the actions of environmental groups have a positive effect on the environment then I say, do what you have to do. Better safe than sorry. There might be economic benefits, but I’d rather have good health and a long life than riches.”
READY TO BE ARRESTED
Kurt Limbach is a landowner and board member of the Mountain Watershed Association.
New York and Maryland have banned fracking statewide. Environmental groups played a big role in that, Limbach said. Why didn’t it work in Pennsylvania? “The rural population of Pennsylvania has been used to being dominated by the coal industry,” Limbach said. “That made it a lot easier for the fracking industry and made it harder for the environmental groups to organize here against the gas industry.”
Another factor propping up the gas industry in Pennsylvania has been money, he said. “The gas sector spent tons of money buying politicians,” Limbach said. “The Democrats are almost as complicit as any of the Republican politicians. They give a little more lip service to environmental protection, but they don’t do anything about it.”
Limbach said he believes it’s time for more drastic action. In 2016, for example, opponents to the Dakota Access pipeline formed a blockade to protest.
“I’m 63 years old and I have never been arrested for anything in my life. I take pride in the fact that I’m a law-abiding citizen that pays all his taxes, but I’m ready to be arrested in a non-violent protest to stop this abomination that is going to kill the environment and help kill the planet by driving global warming.”
Limbach said the people of Pennsylvania never really had a chance to understand the level of pollution that could be caused by the Shell cracker and the gas and petrochemical industry at large. He thinks if informed citizens were given the option to trade jobs at the cracker plant for the health consequences, “they would all say no.”
The fact that Shell’s cracker in Potter Township has received permits from the Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t satisfy Limbach. “I think we have to follow Martin Luther King and Gandhi. They were able to effect change with non-violent disobedience, changes that weren’t able to be made within the legal system as it was set up.”
Limbach said he doesn’t think it’s too late to fight the gas industry. “It’s never too late to fight evil. Anything that makes their operations more difficult and delays them is good for the environment. ”
Rebecca Matsco serves as chairwoman of the board of supervisors of Potter Township, the municipality where the Shell cracker is being constructed.
The board of supervisors for Potter Township suddenly became major decision-makers for the region when Shell approached them about plans for the cracker plant. Environmental groups connected with the board quite frequently, determined to stop the plant or at least negotiate safeguards.
“Our interactions with Clean Air Council and others were overwhelmingly positive in Potter Township,” Matsco said. “Clean Air Council reached out into the community, made a concerted effort to go door to door. They gave a voice to those who had anxiety about the cracker project and to those who were opposed to the project.”
However, Matsco said she thinks some environmental groups misrepresented the role of the Potter Township supervisors. “We heard groups say things to the press like, ‘How can three township supervisors in some backwater determine what happens to something that will affect all of Pennsylvania?’ But that is not what actually happened.”
Matsco stressed that the supervisors of Potter Township only had the authority to set conditions for the cracker plant that had to do with traffic or noise and light pollution.
Matsco said it’s difficult to determine if the activities of the environmental groups have been effective. “It would be an interesting exercise to survey the area to see how public sentiment about the cracker has moved because of the activities of these folks,” she said. “Perhaps they have changed public sentiment, but I’m not really aware of that.”
UNREASONABLE AND RADICAL
James Willis is a Binghamton, New York-based editor and publisher of the Marcellus Drilling News, a pro-industry website. Willis said he does not receive funding from the industry.
“Let’s take any pipeline project — it doesn’t matter which one — those environmental groups will oppose it, no matter what," Willis said. "They are driven by what I call an irrational hatred for fossil fuels. They consider it as something they must stop to save the Earth. This drives them to be unreasonable.”
The environmental groups “may bring up some good points periodically, but the purpose to bring up those points is not to negotiate or to compromise. Their goal is to defeat the industry.”
Willis said he believes environmental groups have caused serious financial damage to the industry, to union members and to communities. “To start, you can think of all the legal fees for defending projects against lawsuits. You can also think of lost revenue for companies when projects are delayed. Think also of people that would have had jobs and communities that would have had tax revenues if projects were not being held up.”
Willis said he doesn’t think environmental groups have the right to turn to civil disobedience and more radical actions. “I don’t think that is free speech. I think people that advocate anarchy must be stopped. Their rights to clean air and clean water have not been violated. Projects like the cracker and the Falcon pipeline have been fully vetted by the environmental authorities. Now the opponents say, ‘We don’t like the outcome of this battle and, therefore, we’re going to take the law into our own hands.’ That’s a description for a lawless society.”
Willis said he sees no harm in the money that industry puts up to lobby the legislators in Pennsylvania. “We’re not corrupting the democratic process. We’re defending our rights to function in a free society with private companies. Those companies are made up of people and those people have rights to engage in legitimate business activities.”
Matthew Mehalik is executive director of the Breathe Project*, a clearinghouse for information on air quality in Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond.
Mehalik wants to make it clear that it isn’t the responsibility of environmental groups to stop the Shell cracker or the Falcon pipeline, which will snake through Southwestern Pennsylvania and connect West Virginia and Eastern Ohio. “It’s up to the state and the national government to act under proper authority to protect the public from air pollution, and unfortunately, we’re not seeing that happening,” he said.
Mehalik said he still believes environmental groups have been effective. “The more the public finds out about the development of the gas and petrochemical sector, the less they support it.” The projects are moving ahead, Mehalik said, because regulatory authorities are defining their responsibilities so narrowly that oversight is meaningless.
So, is it too late for those who want to stop the cracker or the pipeline? “It’s never too late,” Mehalik said. “The switch to the cracker has not been turned on... There are still questions about the safety of the Falcon pipeline.”
Mehalik also hopes financial factors will stop the cracker. “The oil and gas sector is the worst-performing sector in the entire stock market. Last year, we saw bankruptcies and layoffs. EQT, the largest natural gas company, laid off 300 people.”
Recent industry reports state that trade tensions with China cast doubt on the export-driven expansion of polyethylene production in the United states.
Mehalik said he believes there will be no market for the polyethylene the cracker produces if the trade war continues. The growth in U.S. demand for polyethylene is projected at 1.5 percent while the industry is bumping capacity by 9 percent, he said. “Just about all of that increase is slated to go to China.”
*The Breathe Project receives funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also provides funding to PublicSource.
Teake Zuidema is a photographer and journalist living in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
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