Every year, Allison Benedum gives her students an assignment related to current events and the environment.
“In the past, we’ve done like a letter to a local representative on air quality issues,” Benedum said.
Benedum teaches high school English, women’s literature, and earth and environmental science at Rochester Area High School in Beaver County. Student body: 200.
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This year, the assignment coincided with the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment was only 15 miles away. Students could see the black plume from burning vinyl chloride from their backyards.
“They were asking me, ‘My mom’s really worried, what should I go home and tell her? You’re my science teacher, Can you help me?’” Benedum said. “Once I heard that, I basically threw out that week’s plans.”
Instead, she directed her students to study local air and water quality. The students were worried about the impact of the derailment, but it wasn’t just that. Shell’s big new plastics plant, an ethane cracker, had just opened up about 4 miles away, flaring hazardous gases every few weeks or so over the winter. And a pool chemicals company a half-mile from the school spewed toxic chemicals into the air in 2019 when it caught fire.
As it turned out, it’s hard to get information on local water quality, so the students focused on air.
“We went over the air quality. Like, is the air safe for us? Is it safe to breathe?” said Pepper Seamans, a sophomore. The students compared air quality readings over the course of several months in both Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Overall, the air quality in Beaver County was within acceptable limits, Seamans said. “But we’re still really worried about it.”
Air pollution from Shell
After a series of malfunctions and flaring events, Shell shut the plant down for repairs in March. It reopened last month. Shell has agreed to a $10 million fine for more than a dozen violations, including exceeding its yearly limit of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and nitrogen oxides.
Seamans, who has an aunt that works at the plant, studied the plant’s emissions and found they included a number of harmful chemicals.
“With all these toxins, there are health issues coming with it. The VOC and nitrogen oxides create smog and ground-level ozone. The effects from all of the pollution is brain damage, lung disease, like asthma and emphysema,” she said.
Reese Riordan, an 11th grader, was surprised when she compared Pennsylvania’s air quality to Ohio’s in the weeks after the derailment. The students used an EPA air quality index which gives a numeric grade; anything over 100 being unhealthy.
“We actually found Pennsylvania air quality was worse,” she said. “There were some days when it was really bad. Like one day, February 16th, it was all the way in the hundreds (in Pennsylvania), and the air quality in Ohio was only 31.”
Norfolk Southern derailment
Riordan moved to the school district in October when her family moved to Beaver County from Idaho. A few months after they moved, the Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine.
Authorities there intentionally burned five rail cars’ worth of vinyl chloride, rather than risk a catastrophic explosion.
“Everybody was posting how the animals are dying because, (chemicals were) messing up the water and (pictures of) the big smog cloud. And you could see it from…my house because we live on the hill,” Riordan said. “It was crazy. I thought we were going to have to move again.”
Riordan said the most striking thing she learned was how companies like Shell break air quality rules. In September 2022, the plant released 512 tons of volatile organic compounds, almost as much as its entire 12-month allotment of 516 tons.
“We found out…they’re breaking the little rules set in place that (say) don’t release too much, and they’re breaking it,” Riordan said. “The years’ worth of toxins. They just let it out when the rules put in place (said) that they can’t do that. And I think it’s because they have enough money that they can afford to do that and deal with the consequences.”
Aric Alberts, a graduating senior, said he didn’t think much of the derailment until he saw a report that 4,000 fish had died because of chemicals released into local streams.
“That was when I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, stuff is actually serious,’” said Alberts.
Alberts’ mother works on a farm near East Palestine. He spent part of the week after the February derailment helping her track down local veterinarians for the farm animals.
“Immediately after that, my mom just bought a whole bunch of bottled water and told me to not drink from the faucet,” Alberts said.
Questioning the government’s response
Alberts said he found the response from government officials confusing. At first, they justified the intentional burning of the vinyl chloride. Afterward, they declared the area safe, even though fish had died and hundreds of people reported feeling sick.
“When the fish died, I was like, ‘Wow, is this like propaganda going on? Telling us everything’s okay when it’s actually not?’” he said.
Benedum says one of the purposes of the exercise was to teach her students how to sift through sources on environmental topics in the social media era. She asks them to question where their information is coming from. Is it a reliable source? Is it an accurate source? Is it recent?
“A lot of where they’re getting their information is TikTok, it’s Instagram, it’s their parents, through Facebook. And it’s not always the most researched or the most even-keeled. A lot of it can be inflammatory, and they come in very panicked about things,” Benedum said.
She said researching environmental impacts gave her kids a small degree of power in a realm where it often feels like they have none.
“There’s, I think, a big sense of, ‘I have no control over these things’ about the cracker plant, about the train derailment, but I can at least understand and have that knowledge to help me if I do get sick or if I do see, you know, dead animals,” she said. “It’s being able to put those pieces together.”
Benedum says she hopes her students take away the fact that they can look for real information on their own and develop their own opinions. She’s working with a non-profit to try and get some air quality monitors set up at the school so that the students can create their own air quality data.