An Ohio River Valley Epidemic: Ethane Cracker Plants

By Liz Partsch

For decades, dwellers have scavenged the Ohio River Valley for its plentiful resources. From the 17th to 18th century when Native Americans used it as a means for fur trading and agriculture purposes to 19th century when it was used as a means for pioneers to travel westward — the Ohio River Valley has always been important for trade, agriculture and transportation. Eventually though, the Ohio River valley would gain a new purpose in the 20th century when industries would begin transporting large barges of steel, oil and gas. In the 21st century, the river would become a fossil fuel industry hub, its water and resources used to produce products the nation depends on. However, over time this expedient resource has been exhausted and placed in a precarious situation. Instead of a plentiful clean river, the Ohio River Valley banks are coated in washed-up micro plastics, its species are on the edge of extinction and it’s home to America’s dirtiest drinking water. 

The next potential plotpoint in the Ohio River Valley storyline is the construction of ethane cracker plants along its banks.

Ethane cracker plants are the country’s latest shortcut to producing plastic products using natural gas and fossil fuel resources. Alongside methane, ethane can be used as a means to power cars and generate power plants. However, ethane is more frequently chemically broken down to make plastic products. The process of plastic production begins when oil and gas companies extract the natural gas ethane from Marcellus and Utica shale. In order to convert ethane from a liquid into a gas, immense pressure and temperatures are applied at processing facilities through de-ethanization, the boiling point for ethane when it turns into gas. Ethane is then transported through pipelines to ethane crackers where they use the process of cracking, the use of extreme heat in order to break down the molecular bonds of ethane, to produce ethylene.​ Next, ethylene is transported via pipeline to another facility where it is finally converted into polyethylene, the most common type of plastic produced today. 

In order to produce plastic, ethane cracker plants are made up of a multitude of parts including fractionator facilities and underground storage facilities as well as pipelines, petrochemical refineries and processing plants.

Dustin White, an environmental activist and concerned citizen of Charleston, WV, discussed the harm associated with building the ethane cracker plants.

“For one, just the building of this infrastructure is going to do environmental harm,” White said. “And then when these pieces of infrastructure come online, they’re going to continue to emit pollution — both air and water pollution — and they are going to be making products that are harmful to the environment.”

Behind the construction of these ethane cracker plants is the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub — a proposed infrastructure mega project in May of 2017 that would expand oil and gas drilling. This plan envisions cracker plants being built all along the Ohio River Valley including parts of the West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania regions — some cracker plants are already being constructed.

One ethane cracker plant undergoing construction is the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex located in Potter Township, PA — operated by Shell Oil Company. The Shell cracker plant is supposed to be done in 2022, however is still undergoing construction.

Other proposed ethane cracker plants include the PTT ethane cracker plant located in Belmont County, OH — owned by PTT Global Chemical — and a Parkersburg, WV ethane cracker plant — operated by Braskem America. 

Currently, both cracker plant development projects have been temporarily abandoned until PTT Global Chemical and Braskem America can find partners to fund their projects. 

“The (ethane cracker plant) in Belmont County, Ohio is just on hold because of lack of investments, which is fine,” Roxanne Groff, anAthens environmental activist for anti-fracking, gas and oil industries, said. “We don’t ever care what the reason is that these assaults on our communities go away, whether it’s a win by the people, because we won in court or we convinced the regulatory agencies to not do something. It’s the rarest of reasons that we’d become successful, but I do believe that the stall in the process was done by the citizens.”

As the PTT cracker plant is still up in the air, White and many others’ worries lie with the specific location of the PTT plant and how it could affect surrounding communities. Being built in Belmont County, Ohio, the plant will be directly across the river from Moundsville, West Virginia. Although the plant is permitted and located in Ohio, it would emit a considerable amount of air pollution that would directly affect the Moundsville community. 

Natalie Kruse, a professor and director of the Ohio University environmental studies program, talks about the concerns of pollution from ethane cracker plants, especially air pollution. 

“In terms of coal or fracking for natural gas and natural gas condensates, there is a big water footprint of both of those activities, as is there a big footprint of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution,” Kruse said. “Water is certainly one of the most — that’s what I focus on so I see it as very important — but it is also one of the most visible impacts. If you can’t smell air pollution it is hard to conceptualize air pollution until you’re struggling to breathe.”    

Alongside air pollution, ethane cracker plants produce a long list of harmful environmental effects. 

“If you look at the full lifecycle and from the moment the feedstock is fracked to the waste by products of plastic, there is no part of this that is not harmful to human health in some way,” White said. Some of these harmful effects include chemicals and fumes from fracking, toxins released from plastic, plastic waste, water pollution, breathing and respiratory problems, neurological damage and many more unknown environmental and health hazards. 

One of the biggest concerns for ethane cracker plants, especially the PTT cracker plant, is how pipelines would affect the already polluted Ohio River — the source of drinking water for roughly 5 million people. 

Typically, pipelines are used to transport natural gas across the land and under streams and rivers. When worn down overtime, pipelines can develop leaks and cracks where liquid gas has the potential to leak into the water. The Ohio River would be no exception to this if the PTT ethane cracker plant was built. 

Having dealt with contaminated water before, White reflected on his own experience with the 2014 Elk River chemical spill on January 9, 2014. 

View of the Ohio River from the Wheeling Suspension Bridge (Nov. 13, 2021).

A rusty Freedom Industries storage tank, containing the coal washing chemical methylcyclohexanemethanol, MCHM, leaked 10,000 gallons of the chemical liquid into the Elk River in Charleston, WV. The spill polluted the drinking water of roughly 300,000 people and nine counties, leaving residents without clean water for weeks. Like many in the Charleston community, White was greatly affected by the chemical spill. 

In October 2013, White’s father, a previous coal miner, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A few months later in December 2013, White and his father spent most of the Christmas month at the Veterans Hospital in Richmond, VA, for surgeries. In January 2014, right after starting the surgery, the medical staff realized the cancer had spread too far and had to discharge his father — the same day when the Elk River was contaminated by the Freedom Industries chemical spill. 

After arriving home from Richmond, White attempted to soothe his father’s pain from his previous surgery that day and draw him a bath. Fortunately, minutes before turning on the water White was notified of the chemical spill — yet unfortunately this left his father without a bath and in immense discomfort. 

“I thought ‘okay maybe this is something that’s just been blown out of proportion,’” White said. “I go on, turn on the TV and saw the news report; it was the accumulation of all my fears in one.”

For the next several days, he had to melt snow and boil creek water just to be able to care for his father and keep him clean. After recently having major surgery, it was very important for White’s father to have access to clean water at the time. 

“He still had wounds that were healing and things like that,” White said. “So we needed to try to have as clean as water as possible. He would end up passing away in March. So he would spend some of the last days of his life without access to clean water.”

Many people were affected by the 2014 chemical spill, having to struggle and endure living without clean water for weeks — White is concerned this could happen again to the Ohio River Valley when ethane crackers plants come online.

Already considered one of the most polluted rivers in the United States, an article from World Atlas reported the river is believed to contain roughly 20 million pounds of toxic discharge from oil and gas industries. 

The pollution ranges from a variety of things like acid-mine drainage, raw sewage, nitrate and mercury chemicals and microplastics. 

Groff states pollution in the Ohio River and the possibility of further pollution stems from the EPA’s inability to consider the full, “cumulative effect” ethane cracker plants and other infrastructures have on drinking water.  

“When (speaking of) the ethane cracker plant in Belmont County, the EPA didn’t take into consideration the pollution from existing fracking operations, didn’t take into consideration the existing pollution from dumping into the Ohio River, didn’t take into consideration the storage of ethane in the salt domes next to the Ohio River,” Groff said. “They just looked at what is this plant going to do.”

Without regulatory agencies considering the pollution ethane cracker plant infrastructures may have on the Ohio River, this leaves the potential for the drinking water of many communities to further be impacted.

Alongside air and water, the end product of ethane cracker plants would contribute to even more pollution in the Ohio River Valley: plastic pollution. 

In October of 2020, Ohio lawmakers blocked local governments ability to ban plastic products in the state of Ohio. 

With the Ohio river already containing plastic waste and microplastics, Sam Crowl, associate director of the Office of Sustainability in Athens County, Ohio, states the ban is in correlation with how much Ohio lawmakers are ruled by the plastics industry, like ethane cracker plants.  

“The plastics industry has got a lot of money and is very powerful,” Crowl said. “(They) have been on the Ohio River, on the Ohio side of the Ohio river, for decades and decades and they have had a lot of influence. I believe that corporate plastics industry influence has convinced Ohio lawmakers to make these bans which keep us locally from doing what we want to do.”

Crowl explains oftentimes plastic ends up in Athens’s nearby storm drains and rivers, eventually flowing to and polluting the Ohio River.

One of the ways Crowl and the Athens community are trying to counter plastic pollution in waterways is by marking storm drains and spreading community awareness of where these drains are located.

However, Crowl points out microplastics, being so small, and the continuance of plastic production will remain an issue without large-scale action.

“If you just shut down the plastics industry, you would be doing a huge disservice to the economic viability of any country including the United States,” Crowl said. “Government, I do believe, should be involved in the regulation. We’ve seen over the last sort of 60 years that all kinds of government regulation through things like the Clean Water Act have had a positive impact on our environment and society. So I think government regulation is a good place to be part of the conversation.”

Despite all the hazardous concerns of ethane cracker plants, many communities still are in favor of the new infrastructure. 

Pitched as economically prosperous and job friendly, many of the oil and gas industries in the Appalachian region face both support and opposition from communities. 

Many Belmont County residents were mostly in favor of the PTT ethane cracker plant because of the promise of jobs. 

Although Groff mentions this “promise of  jobs” isn’t valid, as few people who have been promised jobs in the oil and gas industries, have actually been hired. 

“There’s this false sense of ‘this happens all the time,’ especially in extractive industries or industries of chemical emissions; things that are not good for our communities, for the health,  and safety of our community members,” Groff said. “But people just focus on that one word jobs, not what kind? What am I going to be doing? What are the risks? What are the skill sets? What’s the wage rate? People aren’t told that.” 

A report from Deloitte Insights found that in 2020 the oil and gas industries shed 100,000 jobs, and projected that roughly 70% of those jobs may not come back in 2021 or even for good. 

Groff suggested perhaps it is time for a new industry with more available jobs and less environmental hazards to move in — a clean industry that can cruise down the waters of the Ohio River Valley and drift into the homes of Appalachian residents: green energy. 

“That state of Ohio already invested $70 million in the site, which is $70 million wasted right now,” Groff said. “That doesn’t mean that the site couldn’t be used and should be used for something far more appropriate for the area — which could be green energy development; whatever would not be an assault on our air, water, land and health.”

Us/Them sign on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge (Nov. 13, 2021).

Images courtesy of Liz Partsch. Featured photo: Wheeling Suspension Bridge where recent PTT ethane cracker plant protest happened in October 2021 (Nov. 13, 2021).

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