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In late December, environmental regulators in Ohio approved both the air and water discharge permits for an ethane cracker in Belmont County, Ohio, paving the way for the project to get started. Some people are predicting that this could be the beginning of a petrochemical hub in the region.

This 10-billion-dollar plant, proposed by Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical and its partner, would be the second ethane cracker along the Ohio River. Shell Chemical is building an ethane cracker north of Pittsburgh in Beaver County.

This second cracker is near the town of Shadyside, Ohio, a little more an hour’s drive southwest of Pittsburgh. It would use ethane from natural gas wells in the region to make one and a half million tons of ethylene and polyethylene pellets per year that can be manufactured into plastic products, like plastic bags, medical devices and car parts.

LISTEN to AF host Kara Holsopple talk with Julie Grant about her story.

Local Support and Opposition

Many people who support and oppose the plant spoke at a public hearing about the company’s air permit held in December by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The company has promised more than 5,000 construction jobs to build the plant and at least 500 permanent jobs.

Building and trade groups spoke in favor of the plans, as did local elected officials who have been dealing with high poverty rates and the loss of coal and steel industry jobs.  Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas was one official who gave testimony that night. He spoke to The Allegheny Front after the permit was approved by the Ohio EPA.

“We’ve been working on getting to this point [to get a permit approved] for three years,” he said.

Thomas said he believes that this is the largest economic development opportunity in the history of the state. Even more important to him is the impact he says the plant will have on the Belmont County area.

“It’s going to provide hundreds, if not thousands of job opportunities for youth and for children that are not even born at this point,” he said.

In the press release announcing the final environmental air permit for PTT to build the ethane cracker, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said the agency is “proud to be part of the effort to bring critical jobs to Ohio.”

This enthusiasm rankled Jill Hunkler, who lives about 20 miles from where the Ohio plant would be built.

“Unacceptable in my mind,” she said. “It’s not [Ohio EPA’s] job… to create jobs. It’s to protect public health and the environment from these toxic industries. Do your job!”

Hunkler was among the many citizens who spoke against the plant at the air permit hearing.

The cracker facility would be allowed to emit approximately 400 tons/year of volatile organic compounds and almost 200 tons/year of particulate matter among other pollutants and nearly 1.8 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.

Ohio EPA spokesperson Heidi Griesmer said the cracker won’t be allowed to push the region’s air quality below federal standards.

“Our mission is to protect all Ohioans, no matter where they live and to ensure that there is good air quality for all Ohioans,” Griesmer said.

According to written comments submitted at the air permit hearing, a coalition of environmental and health groups took issue with the pollution numbers used by Ohio EPA, saying the data and modeling are flawed. They also criticized the agency for not adequately taking into consideration the health impacts on the community.

“Despite the known health risks of the pollutants planned to be emitted from the facility, PTTGCA has not completed, and Ohio EPA has not required, a full health impact assessment to be done to evaluate the impact of this major emissions source on the surrounding community,” according to the statement

They also said that “increased petrochemical development and fossil fuel production has no place in Ohio at a time when immediate action is needed to address the catastrophic threats of climate change.”

A Petrochemical Hub

With the potential for a second ethane cracker in the region, and plans to store natural gas liquids like ethane in salt caverns in the region, many are predicting a new industry hub in the region, with increased plastics and chemical manufacturing to use the pellets that ethane crackers will produce.

Can Shale Gas Rebuild the Region’s Manufacturing Base?

A new report by the U.S. Department of Energy touts the region’s potential to become a hub for ethane, projecting a 20-fold jump in ethane production by 2025, from approximately 32,000 barrels/day in 2013 to 640,000 barrels/day, according to the Energy Information Administration.

PTT Global Chemical has not officially announced that they’re moving forward with the project.