LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Lessons from Earth Day
May 2, 2020
On April 22, environmentalists all over the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day through virtual activities. The first Earth Day took place in 1970, and it was a wake-up call to the human race. If we continued to treat our planet carelessly using raw materials as if they were endless, and dumping our wastes into the water, air and land, our planet would no longer provide sustenance for us or the thousands of other species that share our planet Earth.
The world has come to a standstill as countries try to protect their citizens from the COVID-19 virus spreading across the globe. While our country is preoccupied with this crisis, polluting industries have used this as an excuse to increase their assault on our environment. Some government agencies charged with assuring the safety of our air and water, have all but abdicated their responsibilities.
As usual, the oil and gas industry has been quick to claim their industry is an essential one. Although the maintenance of existing energy supplies is critical, new pipeline construction is not. Yet, many pipelines, including the Mariner East II in Pennsylvania, the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia and the Keystone XL Pipeline in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska all continue to be constructed.
Oil Change International’s Collin Rees spoke out against bailing out big oil saying, “We need billions of dollars invested directly in vulnerable communities dying from COVID-19, not spent propping up massive oil companies and unneeded projects that would trample indigenous rights and exacerbate the climate crisis.”
In the midst of a pandemic where people are being asked to avoid family funerals and are separated from their loved ones, hundreds of out-of-state construction workers will be moving into rural communities in these regions.
This is especially disturbing in isolated areas that lack hospitals and medical resources such as indigenous communities and isolated regions in West Virginia.
Citizens living in communities close to the Shell Plastic Cracker plant in Monaca have asked Gov. Tom Wolf to pause its construction due to the possible spreading of the COVID-19 virus. They cited a range of hazards including crowded buses and a lack of hand sanitizer in portable bathrooms. The site has seen more than 7,000 construction workers employed on the 40-acre tract of land.
Communities in and around pipeline construction also are worried about the spread of the virus from “man-camps.” Out-of-state workers use these camps to set up temporary housing. The continued construction of pipelines and other oil and gas projects during a time of a pandemic shows a total disregard for the health and safety of local communities, and also for pipeline workers and their families.
The plastics industry claims that plastic is essential due to the virus outbreak, but a recent study in Marine Pollution Bulletin points out that nurdles and microplastics can be used as vectors for pathogens. Nurdles on public beaches in the Scotland region were “colonized” by harmful bacteria (E. coli and vibrio.) These pathogens can actually “hitch-hike” on plastic and hide from UV light and other environmental exposures that might kill them. Researches believe nurdles could also attract other pathogens such as norovirus and rotavirus.
On March 26, the EPA announced a “temporary policy on environmental enforcement” would occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the results of this policy is “no penalties will be given to entities who fail to comply with routine monitoring and reporting.” This also includes no reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and the weakening of transportation sector emission requirements.
As we struggle with a disease that targets the lungs, the EPA announced it will weaken 2012 auto pollution standards. This will make the USA one of the worst countries when it comes to fuel efficiency. According to a Mother Jones article, the reversal means “an increase of 185,000 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 other respiratory problems, and an increase of $190 billion in health costs between now and 2050.”
A recent April 2020 report from Harvard University stated that “long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the United States.”
Scientists have said this policy is a “license to pollute.” Some industries that will greatly benefit from the lack of monitoring and reporting include: chemical plants, oil and gas, power plants, steel manufacturers and others who could discharge more pollutants into the air and waterways of our nation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has in a way become another wake-up call. It has given us time to revisit our relationships with everything in our lives. Those material things we thought we couldn’t live without are not as important. We are realizing that the stock market is not the correct apparatus to use when measuring happiness or the health of the world.
While the world has been dealing with an epic pandemic, scientists are seeing interesting evidence showing the effects of human activities on the health of the planet might be reversible. While we pause to curtail the spread of this COBID 19 virus, the Earth is healing.
Scientists from the Global Carbon Project are predicting “global carbon dioxide emissions may drop by more than 5 percent in 2020, which would be the largest fall since the end of the Second World War.” Satellite images from NASA show reductions in pollution all over the world. Scientists warn this phenomenon will only be temporary as the lockdowns over the nation and world are lifted.
Although these declines are small and will not immediately affect climate change, they prove that if we can continue to reduce the amount of man-made carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we can make a difference.
For me, a recent sign of hope was the announcement of the construction of a large solar project on Brown’s Island (“Solar farm planned for former WSX property on Brown’s Island,” Thursday.) As a child, I grew up about a mile from the island in a house on Nebo Drive in Toronto. The island was a great place to find Indian arrowheads, but once construction of the coke plant was started, those artifacts were buried.
I remember the horrible explosion at the coke plant in 1972 that killed 19 men, including our next-door neighbor. It shook our house.
I had an uncle who worked at the coke ovens. He died from cancer. For years, fumes of polyaromatic hydrocarbons like benzene bathed our community.
Now, witnessing an environmentally “green” project taking form on this island is truly astounding. A large solar-panel farm will be constructed by the company One Sun, out of Albuquerque, N.M. It will provide 40 megawatts of electricity from 120,000 panels. I only wish the Belmont County officials would listen to the members of Concerned Ohio River Residents (nocrackerplantov.com) and look at this project and understand that economic development and a clean environment are not mutually exclusive.
(Pokladnik, a resident of Uhrichsville, is an environmental scientist.)
Education falls prey to fossil fuel economics
Dr. Randi Pokladnik, local retired chemist and science teacher
Click HERE for the link to share this opinion piece:
Apr 4, 2020
Recent press reports about the planned cracker plant in Belmont County claim an “economic development agreement” has been reached between two Asia-based companies, the PTTGC Petrochemical Complex and the Shadyside School District. The schools would receive $38 million from PTTGC, which is proposing to build an ethane cracker plant in Belmont County. Initially “$8 million would be dispersed during the four years of construction and then $2 million would be dispersed annually for the next 15 years.”
In return, the companies would receive a 15-year property tax exemption for the plant through a state enterprise zone program. No mention was made as to how much money this exemption would save the companies during the 15-year timespan, or if the agreed-on payments are guaranteed or based on company profits.
Ohio’s recent property tax exemption for the PTTGC cracker is not the first time Ohio has used subsidies to encourage this plant to locate in our region. JobsOhio, a private nonprofit economic development agency, gave the project $14 million in 2017, $30 million in 2019, and $20 million this February. JobsOhio is funded through sales of alcoholic beverages in Ohio.
Ohio is not alone when it comes to using subsidies such as these “tax incentives” to entice companies to their states. Pennsylvania passed the “Keystone Opportunity Act” in 2012, which exempted the Shell Cracker plant, being constructed in Monaca from all “corporate net income taxes and property taxes for 15 years.” In return, the company must invest a billion dollars and create at least 400 new permanent full-time jobs. Pennsylvania also passed the Resource Manufacturing Tax Credit or Act 85. This gives Shell a “tax credit of 5 cents for every gallon of ethane it buys to manufacture ethylene, provided it creates 2500 full-time equivalent jobs.”
The International Monetary Fund found that direct and indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas in the USA for the year 2015 topped $649 billion. This is 10 times what the government spends on education in our country. Petrochemical industries come into our communities promising economic prosperity while bringing toxic air pollutants, such as butadiene, benzene, formaldehyde and xylenes as well as water pollutants.
As with all extractive industries, their externalities are borne disproportionately by poor communities. The industry targets struggling school systems, promising financial support and offering free workshops, curriculum materials and classroom supplies. As a former teacher in a poor rural school system, I have seen the “favors” offered by fossil fuel public relations departments. These materials dismiss fossil fuel industry’s contribution to climate change while downplaying the environmental hazards of fossil fuel extraction and use.
According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, industry indoctrination in our schools can start as early as the first grade. This is evidenced by the book “Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream,” a pro-industry narrative. Ohio has a program that shows teachers how to “frack” Twinkies and a national fossil fuel educational program claims, “it’s too soon to tell if the earth is heating up, but a little warming might be a good thing.”
We Ohioans should not be placed in a position where securing funding for our schools involves allowing our educational system to be infiltrated with industry lies and our politicians to barter away our future and the futures of our children. We in Ohio have known for decades the necessity of finding other ways to fund our schools. In a 1997 case in Ohio, Justice Francis Sweeney said Ohio’s Constitution requires that the General Assembly “secure a thorough and sufficient system of common schools throughout the state.” In that case, it was also determined that “Ohio’s elementary and secondary public-school financing system violates Section 2, Article VI of the Ohio Constitution, which mandates a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.” Currently, Ohio’s school systems rely on property taxes, and as long as that happens, funding deals like the one struck between the PTTGC company officials and the Shadyside school system will be inevitable.
Can any agreement with the fossil fuel industry be dependable for years to come? A few examples of the uncertainty of these agreements can be seen in other Ohio school districts (see Herald-Star Dec 23.) A December article in the Toledo Blade reported that the owners of the Nexus and Rover pipeline systems have filed separate requests with the Ohio Department of Taxation to decrease the valuation of their respective pipelines significantly between 30 and 50 percent. School districts depending on these taxes now must find a new source of revenue or pass costs onto voters via higher property taxes. Anita Lopez, the Lucas County auditor, said the Ohio Department of Taxation “had the audacity to order me to raise values on homeowners, while giving pipeline companies a break for brand-new assets.”
A similar article appeared in the Dec.18 edition of the (Lorain) Morning Journal. Because the Nexus pipeline was seeking a 38 percent reduction in value, the Firelands Local School District will see a $700,000 reduction in tax revenues and the Keystone Local Schools and Midview Local Schools will see a $500,000 deduction in tax revenues. A Feb. 28 article in The Press, a paper serving Lucas, Ottawa, Sandusky and Wood counties, quoted Wood County Auditor Matthew Oestreich, who said, “If the pipelines win their appeals to devalue the property, the difference will have to be paid back to them with interest.”
Shadyside schools need to consider a few more issues before banking on money from the proposed cracker plant. With the current pandemic affecting everything in our lives, including supply and demand of global goods, oil prices have sunk to the lowest price in more than 18 years. A March 18 Houston Chronicle article reported that “seven of the most active companies involved in fracking in Texas have already cut $7.6 billion from their budgets as a response to the oil price collapse.”
A recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, “Ohio petrochemical project faces high risks and shaky outlook,” details the challenges now facing this project.
It cites the “sinking price of plastics” in a market that is already oversupplied due to “industry overbuilding and increased competition.” In addition, alarmed by the health and environmental effects of plastic pollution, the world is now stepping away from single-use plastics.
It is time Ohio finds a fair and reliable process to finance our schools, instead of making deals with polluters.
(Pokladnik, a resident of Uhrichsville, is an environmental scientist.)
A local retired research chemist/environmental scientist shares their professional point of view on the issues with fracking/plastic/petrochemicals/climate change and explains how politics play a big role in it all. Their Letter to the Editor was published in the Steubenville, OH newspaper, The Herald Star in Jan. 2020.
Click HERE for the article.
We’re past time for global plastic intervention
Civilization stands at the edge of a dangerous precipice. Warning signs are all around us. We are destroying our home. The bushfires in Australia serve as another example of the many ways climate change has exacerbated extreme weather across the planet.
Scientists say an area twice the size of the country of Wales, nearly 14 million acres, has burned. The fires have killed close to a billion animals and released a pulse of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere equivalent to half of Australia’s annual emissions.
2019 was a record-breaking year for a number of record high temperatures, and also was the second warmest year ever recorded. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the last six years have been the hottest six years on record, and July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded.
Our atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at 411 ppm, which means they are higher now than at any other time in the past 800,000 years. While climate data shows there were periods millions of years ago when carbon dioxide levels were higher, the rate today at which we are adding greenhouse gases to our atmosphere is unprecedented. NOAA reported, “the annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than any previous natural increase.” Scientific facts confirm the massive amounts of man-made greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere are changing the planet’s climate systems.
It is sad that in 2020 we still have local, state and federal elected officials who engage in willful ignorance and denial. However, what is not surprising is that the fossil fuel industry was aware that burning coal, oil and gas would increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to increases in the planet’s temperature. Their scientists knew this more than 50 years ago.
However, much like the tactics used in the 1970s by the tobacco industry, fossil fuel corporations crafted a message of denial and continue to fund campaigns and organizations which serve to perpetuate the idea that climate change is a hoax.
We must remember that this industry is responsible for: 11 million gallons of oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989; 168 million gallons of oil that contaminated the gulf waters after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010; and locally, the well pad explosion in Belmont County in 2018 that spewed out 90 tons of methane an hour for 20 days. Can we trust this industry?
The plans to create a petrochemical hub in the Ohio Valley happened behind closed doors with little to no input from the public.
I have been to both Ohio EPA water and air permit public meetings and several other community meetings discussing the possible construction of a cracker plant in Belmont County. For the most part, these meetings afford the citizens only token participation as the permits are ultimately approved.
EPA permits do not guarantee safety. A permit is simply a piece of paper that sets arbitrary limits on how much toxic air and water emissions will be allowed to exit an industrial facility. A similar cracker plant near Monaca will be allowed to emit 522 tons of volatile organic compounds, 159 tons of respirable particulate matter, 30 tons of hazardous air pollutants and 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Permits do not make toxins safe nor do they guarantee there will not be more releases or accidents.
Instead of accepting the corporate assurances of safety and jobs, our politicians should be educating themselves with a rigorous examination of peer- reviewed scientific data on the toxicity of plasticizers, the threat to the Ohio River and the effects of increasing toxic air emissions in the valley. At the very least, they should be researching economic development projects that do not require that the valley once again sacrifices clean air and water to another boom-and-bust fossil fuel endeavor.
Instead, our politicians have bent over backward to encourage these projects by granting tax breaks, seeking federal loan guarantees, writing laws to criminalize free speech, weakening state water regulations and passing legislation to prohibit communities from regulating single-use plastics. As if that isn’t enough, according to a 2019 report published in the Atlantic, the world subsidized fossil fuels by $5.2 trillion in 2017. Let that sink in; we are subsidizing the demise of our planet.
Local residents trying to speak truth to power may have some allies in this David-and- Goliath battle to stop plastic making cracker plants. The movement to reduce single-use plastics has gone global. Given the alarming amount of plastic wastes and microplastics in our water, food, and air, many countries are now banning single-use plastic packaging which makes up close to 50 percent of plastic waste and is discarded within minutes of use. More than 60 counties have banned or taxed single-use plastic bags.
Countries like China that once accepted our plastic wastes, which totaled 39 million tons last year, are now refusing our wastes. By 2021, Thailand and Malaysia will ban imported plastic waste. Where will all that plastic go?
Incineration creates deadly emissions like dioxin and furans.
At their current usage rate, our landfills in Ohio have, according to the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, about a 40-year capacity left.
The United States recycles only 9 percent of plastic wastes. We will be drowning in plastic if the fossil fuel industry has its way.
According to ICIS, a global energy and petrochemical research firm, “U.S. producers of polyethylene plan to increase their production capacity by as much as 75 percent by 2022,” and much of this increase will be exported to foreign markets.
It is beyond time for a global plastic intervention, but don’t count on our politicians to take a leadership role. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”