Our region — once known for making steel for bridges and battleships — might someday be known for making the plastic that goes into our food packaging, toys and medical devices. A recent report found Pennsylvania has enough ethane — a component of natural gas — to supply several huge chemical plants. The opening act of this potential chemical boom is taking shape in Beaver County, where Shell is building a multi-billion-dollar “ethane cracker.” And to get some perspective on what could be in store for Pennsylvania, we spoke with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Anya Litvak, who recently visited ground zero of the nation’s petrochemical industry — a stretch of the Mississippi River known as Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor. (Photo: Gerald Herbert / AP)
The Allegheny Front: So you went to Norco, Louisiana. It’s the site of a big petrochemical “cracker” plant owned by Shell — and also where a big chemical explosion killed seven employees back in 1988. While you were there, you visited with a family that lives near Shell’s chemical plant. Can you tell us about them?
Anya Litvak: Barbara and Randy Dixon were sitting on their porch one night when we rolled in. They were in their rocking chairs, and their porch is about 400 feet from the fence line of the Shell cracker. So from their porch, you could see flaring, if there is flaring; and if there is none, you could just basically see lit up steam coming from the plants. Barbara grew up in Norco, her father grew up in Norco, her grandfather grew up in Norco. Her grandfather and her father worked at Shell, her brother has worked at Shell, she worked at Valero, which is a refinery about two miles away. So the family has very deep chemical roots. Randy is from New Orleans, and he decided he was going to move to Norco with Barbara. And the week that they were supposed to be moving into this house, the catalytic cracker blew up. It was a huge explosion that broke a lot of windows and did a lot of structural damage in the town, but nobody in the town died. And I asked Barbara and Randy what they were thinking at the time — if they had second thoughts. They said they never thought twice about it. They came, they assessed the damage, they cleaned up the glass and they said, “Accidents happen.”
AF: So they basically just accepted that that’s the way things are around here.
AL: They did. And they said Shell really went out of their way to make things right. They said they took care of people in that area after that accident. And what was interesting to me is that they didn’t appear to live in fear from then on of something like that happening — even though they do admit that sometimes their windows rattle and their house shakes when there is flaring or some kind of unit upset. So there are events like that, but they just accept it.
LISTEN: Anya Litvak Talks About Visiting Louisiana’s ‘Chemical Corridor’
AF: You also went to a place called Geismar, which isn’t far from Norco. Shell is building a big expansion to its chemical plant there. Were people in that part of Louisiana happy about the expansion?
AL: Yes. The people I talked with were very happy. This is a more than $700 million project, so that would be a huge deal anywhere. There were a bunch of pickup trucks in driveways, in hotel parking lots, restaurant parking lots — the town was kind of hopping along with this activity.
AF: Now this part of Louisiana is known by the chemical industry as the Chemical Corridor. But other people call it Cancer Alley because of all the pollution from these plants. How do people living close to these plants feel about it?
AL: The people that I talked to, for the most part, said they were comfortable with the safeguards in place. Specifically, they talked about how the Environmental Protection Agency takes care of them. Many people talked about how there are air monitors all over the place and how that information is publicly available. I started looking at what studies are available to look at cancer rates, for example. That’s just a small subset of how you can measure danger, because cancer is just one thing that could happen. That data was very elusive. Partly it’s because when studies are done, in order to be published in peer-reviewed journals, they have to have a sample size that’s statistically significant. And in order to do that, you can’t look at people that live just on the fence line; you need a bigger sample. And when you take a bigger sample, that has the potential of diluting whatever impacts you have from living right on the fence line. So people have explained to me that’s part of the reason you don’t see a lot of those studies. And then I’ve seen other efforts that attempted to do health assessments, but were really more health communication strategies. Even the Louisiana Chemical Association did a campaign some years ago about the facts about cancer. And their emphasis was on telling people that their cancer risks are much higher than across the nation — and also, by the way, they smoke a lot more and they eat a lot more and don’t get as much exercise. They were making connections with these factors that you can control, and not emphasizing factors that you can’t.
AF: What are some lessons you’re bringing back for people here in the Pittsburgh area who are curious about what this plant will mean for them?
AL: A lot of people I talked to said it’s very helpful to get involved with someone at the plant. Having a line to the plant is very crucial for having a comfort level with what goes on there, and being able to trust the company when they say, you know, ‘what you smelled or saw isn’t catastrophic.’ In Louisiana, there are a couple of environmental and community action groups that keep track of the safety of plants and what goes on at the plants. And people in industry may argue with them, but the fact is, it’s an extra set of eyes keeping an eye on things that most citizens probably don’t have time to do. So to the extent that people in Beaver County might be wondering about a particular aspect of a plant — let’s say, emissions or permit violations or water quality — it might be helpful for them to identify the groups locally that will be paying attention and keep in touch.
Anya Litvak reports on energy issues for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. You can view her two-part series, “Preparing for Chemical Valley,” here.