Prove your humanity

A group of activists in central Pennsylvania is taking the win as a company decides not to move forward with its plans to build a chemical recycling plant in their community.

Sandy Field is with Save Our Susquehanna, a group formed a couple of years ago along with Bucknell students to oppose a chemical or advanced recycling plant in Point Township, about 60 miles north of Harrisburg. Texas-based Encina planned to process plastic waste, such as bottles and containers, into chemicals there. 

Last week, Field received a tip from a local reporter that something was about to happen regarding the proposed plant along the Susquehanna River.

“For the next two hours, the rest of us talked on the phone,” Field said. They were nervous about what was going to happen. “And then Encina released a press release and said they were pulling out.”

The company’s April 18th press release said it would continue to pursue plans for operations in other parts of the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia, where it could better meet the demand for its products.

But we take full credit,” Field said. “We fought them, and we won, and no one could tell us any different.”

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Field about their campaign.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: What were your specific concerns about the proposed plant?

Sandy Field: So when you first hear about advanced recycling, 95 percent of people say, wait a minute, I like recycling, right? I sort everything and it’s really important to me. But once you dig a little deeper, you learn what it really means is taking post-consumer plastic, melting it at high temperature in the presence of a catalyst, and then making pyrolysis oil from it and, and fractionating that pyrolysis oil with various chemical processes to make chemicals: benzene, toluene, xylene and propylene. 

What we’re concerned about is that this site is going to be right next to our river in the 100-year floodplain. It would likely generate microplastics from washing and sorting the plastic. We were concerned about the air pollution emissions from the melting of plastic.

Then, we were concerned about the storage of the hazardous materials generated by the process and the chemicals on the site in the floodplain. Also, their plan was to take these chemicals, which are carcinogens and hazardous to people, and ship them by rail along the river.

Those rail lines along the river have not been used extensively in a number of years. So we’re not sure what, what kind of state of repair they were in. 

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Kara Holsopple: What was the general feeling in the township about having a chemical recycling plant in the community? 

Sandy Field: The township itself was staying pretty neutral on the project. They had permitting responsibility, and they didn’t want to have any appearance of having an opinion about things other than assessing the permits and things like that.

Last April, the company had asked for a zoning variance to have taller buildings than was permitted for that area. And we had all of our local people show up at that meeting and say that this was going to change the character of our life, and we won that. And so, you know, they were listening. 

Other communities that were going to be affected but didn’t have any permitting responsibility were a little more supportive of us. There had been rumors that there were more plans to bring similar fossil fuel plants to the river. You know, you get one, and then it’s a good place to bring more.

On April 2nd, Northumberland, which is a town downstream of this site, passed an anti-Encina resolution because they clearly saw that the rail line carrying the chemicals was going to go right by their historic district.

They have a plan to have a new business called the Central Susquehanna Riverboat – a boat on the river with the old-timey paddle wheel and everything. So they very strongly felt that they didn’t want this in their area.

Kara Holsopple: Your activism around the proposed Encina plant really got going in 2023. What did that look like?

Sandy Field: We started with the very local area, getting the word out. We were very successful with that. Canvasing, raising awareness with local people who had never heard of it or thought it was a done deal. And so we had a public meeting early on. We had 200 people come.

More recently, we’ve spread upstream and downstream because we really think that the air pollution from the plant and the water pollution are going to be a problem for everyone in our region.

We’re called the Susquehanna Valley because of the Susquehanna River, and the area is characterized by this: river recreation, hunting, camping, and fishing. This is who we are. We value this river. We drink from the river. 

Eleven people pose together at a zoning board hearing.

A group of locals and students after the Point Township zoning board decision against Encina in 2023. Photo: Courtesy Save Our Susquehanna

We also work with environmental groups like Clean Air Council, who have lawyers who have been helping us to follow the permitting process and, submitting appeals and things like that.

Other environmental groups, Break Free From Plastic and Beyond Plastics, were providing us with expertise on the plastics process. I’ve always said to the group, you know, we’re pushing all the buttons, we’re doing yard signs, we’re doing mailers, we were on the radio, we were in the newspaper. We’ve been following the permits. We’ve been writing letters to the editor. We’ve been having our public meetings. It all contributed to a hostile environment for them.

Kara Holsopple: This plant in Point Township is not moving forward, but Pennsylvania is one of more than 20 states that classify chemical recycling as manufacturing, which makes it more attractive for the industry. Are you going to continue your activism?

Sandy Field: You know, a surprising thing happened at our meeting last week. Everyone was so thrilled and so happy. There were tears, the whole thing. And then everyone said, what are we going to do next?

Some people wanted to talk to the local economic development people and convince them that these are not the kind of jobs we want, but other people said it’s not just a NIMBY thing with us. It’s not just not in my backyard. We want to protect other communities from this. There’s nothing like plastics, in my experience as a climate activist.

Everybody is worried about plastics. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is; it doesn’t matter what your educational background is. Everyone sees that plastics is a huge crisis and people are desperate for solutions. And this is, unfortunately, not one of them. We really want to get the word out that the solution is to stop making so much plastic.

The Allegheny Front reached out to Encina for comment but did not get a response by the time of publication.