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Speakers Cite Health Hazards Linked to Petrochemical Industry

Matthew Mehalik, left, executive director of the Breathe Collaborative in Pittsburgh, and Dr. Ned Ketyer, a pediatrician from Washington County, Pennsylvania, appear Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library to discuss the health effects of the petrochemical industry.

WHEELING — An environmentalist and a physician, who spoke in Wheeling Tuesday, paint a dire picture of health impacts of the petrochemical industry, including oil and gas fracking and ethane cracker plants.

Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Collaborative in Pittsburgh, and Dr. Ned Ketyer, a pediatrician from Washington County, Pennsylvania, addressed a large audience at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library.

Wheeling is in the bull’s-eye for harmful effects from the petrochemical industry, Ketyer said, with fracking well pads expanding greatly and compressor stations growing rapidly in size and number.

Citing potential dangers of the industry, they said an ethane cracker plant now under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, and proposed cracker plants in Belmont and Wood counties are expected to create significant negative health care impacts.

For example, Mehalik said experts predict health care costs in Ohio County would increase $1.3 to 3.1 million annually, or $46-94 million over 30 years, as a result of the three plants.

He said 30-year costs nationally are projected at $3.6-8.4 billion.

The Ohio River will be “a conduit for pollution” from the Royal Dutch Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, Ketyer said, adding that air pollution exposures “are going to be significant” in areas downwind from the plant.

Ketyer said people in an area 1 to 4 miles from the plant face extreme exposure, with potential health problems such as upper respiratory irritation, shortness of breath, higher blood pressure and changes in cognitive function.

Points made by Mehalik included:

“The fingerprint of the petrochemical industry is already huge and will be getting bigger.” In Pennsylvania, 11,682 unconventional wells have been drilled and 13,656 violations have been reported, he said. Data for West Virginia was not available.

“The industry uses a piecemeal approach; this makes it tough for communities.” Companies seek approval for “one little thing” after another, going around regulatory restrictions.

“The pollution impacts from this industry are and will be substantial.”

“The climate change implications for development of this industry are disastrous.” Impacts are likely to exist for 50 to 60 years.

“There will be significant negative health care impacts from this industry.”

“Pennsylvania residents are paying and will pay a heavy financial price for aligning with the petrochemical industry.”

For instance, Mehalik said Royal Dutch Shell has been given $1.65 billion in tax forgiveness over 25 years in Pennsylvania for its cracker plant. Property values decrease, while the social costs of carbon emissions increase.

∫ Job projections for the industry anticipate mostly out-of-state and temporary workers, with other workers displaced by automation.

∫ Ethane, a liquid fuel, is being extracted from wells “to make plastic the world doesn’t need.” He said plastic is being produced for uncertain demand in Asia, with sales to China possibly affected by the current trade war.

Citing a drop in the value of methane produced from fracking, Mehalik said, “This industry is operating at a loss and has been for the past decade.”

“The risks to life and property are high.” He said a pipeline in Beaver County blew up within a day of being operational.

“The industry influences democracy,” through lobbying and by weakening citizens’ ability to hold goverment accountable for its responsibilities.

Ketyer, who serves as a consultant for SWPA Environmental Health Project, said living near fracking sites raises risks for pregnant women and, in general, increases problems with asthma, cancer and rashes. Especially vulnerable are pregnant women and fetuses, infants and children, the elderly, the poor, people with pre-existing medical conditions, industry workers, outdoor workers and first responders.

Proximity to fracking can result in sleep disruption, headaches, throat irritation, stress and anxiety, coughing, shortness of breath, sinus problems, fatigue, nausea and wheezing, the physician said. Fracking also produces noise pollution and light pollution.

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