Prove your humanity

What do Louisiana and western Pennsylvania have in common? For one, an industry that for better or for worse inspires art.

Petrochemical America: From Cancer Alley to Toxic Valley is a new exhibit at SPACE gallery in Pittsburgh that takes a closer look at the petrochemical industry, which turns natural gas into the building blocks of plastic.

The exhibit is based on an earlier show and book, which included this image, “From Pipe to Plastic Bag, Petrochemical America” by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff.

“Cancer Alley is a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to 150 different petrochemical plants and processing units,” says Sophie Riedel, curator of the exhibit. “The cancer rates in this area are higher than almost anywhere else in the U.S. There is a lot of research there that draws on the relationship between these plants and the health impacts seen by people living there.”

Riedel says the exhibit draws parallels between the industry in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, and the ethane cracker that Royal Dutch Shell is building in Beaver County along the Ohio River.

The hope is that the Ohio Valley doesn’t become the “Toxic Valley” in the show’s name. Riedel says it’s a warning call.

LISTEN: “Exhibit Brings the Hard Lessons of the Petrochemical Industry Home”

A report out earlier this year estimated that Pennsylvania could support several more petrochemical plants in addition to the one Shell already has planned. That’s what Riedel is afraid of. She points out the region already suffers from some of the dirtiest air in the country.

“We’re adding on layers of risk here,” Riedel says.

The exhibit is based on a previous show and book featuring photographs of Louisiana by Richard Misrach, and images by landscape architect Kate Orff which are referred to as an ecological atlas. In this exhibit, Orff’s layered maps and drawings are shown in relation to photographs which are part of the local Marcellus Shale Documentary Project. The photographs depict some of the people and places impacted by Marcellus shale gas development in our region.

For example, one of Orff’s pieces, From the Earth to the Sky, is thumbtacked to the gallery wall. In it a parade of ghostly figures in earthy tones, from Tyrannosaurus to modern humans, marches toward a precipice.

“It shows a geological timeline, from prehistoric dinosaurs pressing down on layers of algae and creating this deep sediment layer that built up into what we now call fossil fuels,” Riedel says. “This map runs through that timeline and shows that we have this stark contrast with the age of oil and the period that we’re in where the logic of Earth is kind of shattered and it kind of breaks off.”

On the far right side of the image are what look like hundreds of little needles. They represent deep water drilling, seafloor pipelines, and offshore drilling that’s common in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Riedel calls them disruptions.

“Disruptions to this logic of how the earth maintains itself and how it evolves,” she says.

Next this ecological atlas by Orff is a photograph by Nina Berman. A man is shown knee deep in the Susquehanna River in Bradford County. He’s looking down at methane bubbling up through the water, which some there attributed to nearby gas drilling.  

Riedel says this exhibit is a timely response to the way that Pennsylvania has developed its natural gas infrastructure, and where it’s headed.


You can run your fingers through a bowl of white nurdles at the exhibit. Photo: Kara Holsopple

“We’re setting down in stone a supposedly transitional bridge fuel into this manufacturing system,” Riedel says. “This is a big move that I don’t think all of us realize is going on. And the hope of this exhibit is to broaden the public discourse on the relationship between unconventional natural gas drilling, and the downstream derivatives of plastics manufacturing and petrochemical developments.”

The exhibit also includes audio clips from investigations into fracking and the state Department of Environmental Protection by Public Herald, interactive visualizations of the National Air Toxics Assessment Toxic Release Inventory from Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, and documentary films. Visitors can also run their fingers through a bowl of white nurdles. If you aren’t familiar with nurdles, they are the small, plastic pellets that are the raw material for the manufacturing of plastic. The exhibit is also in collaboration with Clean Air Council, Beaver County Marcellus Shale Awareness Committee and PennFuture through the Air Quality Collaborative.

Petrochemical America: From Cancer Alley to Toxic Valley is at SPACE gallery in downtown Pittsburgh from Sept. 27 through Oct. 7. It moves to the Beaver Station Cultural & Event Center for a second showing Oct. 16-20.