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Fears and Hopes on Cracker Expressed During OEPA Hearing in Shadyside

Photo by Jennifer Compston-Strough Lisa Helms, of St. Clairsville, testifies during a public hearing at Shadyside High School on Tuesday regarding an air pollution permit for a proposed ethane cracker at Dilles Bottom.

SHADYSIDE — Dozens of local residents and environmental advocates turned out Tuesday to express their fear of the “plastic monster” Michelle Fetting believes PTT Global Chemical and Daelim will create if the companies construct an ethane cracker plant at Dilles Bottom.

Many others, though, are eager to welcome another industry to the Ohio Valley, saying they believe good-paying jobs and a higher quality of life will come with it.

Fetting, a representative of the Pittsburgh-based BreatheProject.org, described the monstrous impact she believes such a facility would have on the region. Her organization was formed in response to construction of a similar facility by Royal Dutch Shell at Monaca, Pennsylvania. She was one of 30 people who testified on the official record when the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing Tuesday evening at Shadyside High School.

The hearing was regarding a draft air pollution permit-to-install for the proposed petrochemical complex in Belmont County. A cracker plant processes ethane to create ethylene, a key component of plastic.

Prior to hearing testimony, OEPA officials outlined the project and described the permit that is under consideration for the roughly 100 people in the audience. The application for the permit was filed Aug 31. Public comments on the permit will be accepted through Dec. 11. Written comments can be emailed to kimbra.reinbold@epa.ohio.gov or sent to her at OEPA’s Southeast District Office, 2195 E. Front St., Logan, OH 43138.

While describing the project and answering questions from the audience, OEPA’s Mike Hopkins, assistant chief of permitting for OEPA, talked extensively about the plant’s anticipated emissions. He said his agency has been monitoring air quality in Shadyside for two years and will continue to do so for many years after the cracker plant begins to operate, if the project becomes a reality.

“The whole idea is to make sure we are protecting public health,” Hopkins said.

He compared expected emission levels at the cracker plant to those of several other types of polluters. While the cracker might emit about 396 tons of volatile organic compounds per year, for example, a typical gas station or dry cleaner emits 10 tons annually, he said. Larger facilities, such as small factories, emit 50-100 tons per year, while an auto assembly plant or steel mill might emit 1,000 tons each year. He said the largest polluters in Ohio are usually coal-fired power plants, which can emit more than 50,000 tons of VOCs annually. But the fact that he classified the potential PTT plant as a “medium to slightly larger than medium-sized plant in terms of emissions” did not alleviate the concerns of many members of the audience.

Jill Hunkler, of Barnesville, was the first to testify when the public hearing officially got underway. She told those present that hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” to extract natural gas and associated products from the ground is already taking a toll on the health of area residents. She said lots of people will become wealthy if the cracker plant is built, but she said she believes those people will be foreign investors who will not face the same risks as people who live near the site.

“We want clean jobs, healthy jobs for all the workers of our community,” Hunkler said.

Lisa Helms, of St. Clairsville, expressed similar concerns. She said she has traveled all around the world but “nowhere do I get sick except in the Ohio Valley.” She said that upon returning home, she was forced to again begin taking medications for asthma and respiratory issues. And, she said, she believes local air quality and respiratory ailments will worsen if the cracker is built.

“People die here because of asthma, because of COPD,” she said. “We have enough plastic in the Pacific Ocean to make up an area the size of Texas. … Enough!”

But other people who testified, such as Matthew Szollosi, support the project and look forward to the jobs it will create. Szollosi is executive director of Columbus-based ACT OHIO, part of the Affiliated Construction Trades organization. He said that “job creation and environmental accountability do not have to be mutually exclusive.” He added that thousands of people would be employed during construction of the facility, allowing workers to better support their families. He also expects maintenance and operation of the plant to continue to provide employment for many for decades to come.

Michael Kinsley, secretary/treasurer of the Ohio State Building & Construction Trades Council, expressed similar opinions, noting that the nearly 100,000 people his organization represents are trained, skilled workers who are dedicated to creating safe, secure projects that are sustainable. He also pointed out that the proposed plant site, the former location of the R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant, has been an industrial site since the 1920s. He said private investment by PTT from Thailand and Daelim from South Korea will help clean up and improve that area.

Several other people spoke on both sides of the issue. Kristopher Weiss, public involvement coordinator for OEPA, explained that the final decision on whether to approve the permit falls to OEPA Director Craig Butler. Weiss said all testimony entered on the record Tuesday will be considered, along with any comments that are submitted by Dec. 11. He added that questions asked on the record will be answered when a decision is issued, via a document known as the Response to Comments. All questions and comments regarding the permit should include the permit number, #P0124972.

The draft permit can be viewed online at epawwwextp01.epa.ohio.gov:8080/ords/epaxp/f?p+999:10:0. The director’s decision can be appealed to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission within 30 days after it is issued.

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