Guest column/Quality of our region’s air remains an issue

It has been more than 42 years since I worked as a college intern on the prominent Harvard School of Public Health Six Cities Study, initiated in Steubenville. The study was designed to evaluate exposures to outdoor air pollution. Specifically, the study examined concentrations of total suspended particles, sulfur dioxide, ozone and particulate matter with particles whose diameter’s ranged from 2.5 to 15.0 micrometers.

Six cities across the Midwest were chosen, with Steubenville being selected because of its notoriously dirty air. One of the main conclusions of the study was that “Exposure to air pollution contributes to excess mortality.” Especially noteworthy was the finding that a reduction of the amount of particles (less than 2.5 micrometers) significantly decreased death rates. The results were so substantial that they led to a revision of air quality standards by the EPA.

Our family’s home was in Toronto, a few miles away from the Brown’s Island coke plant. Dirty air was a common occurrence during the 1970s, especially on days where air inversions took place. As a child, I had no idea what was in that air aside from the fact that skies were often hazy and it smelled like chemicals. At the time of the study, local industries, including power plants were cited as major contributors to poor air quality.

Upon my graduation from high school, my curiosity to identify the air pollution in the valley led me to study chemistry at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. During my senior year, I applied and was accepted to work with Doug Dockery and John Spengler, both scientists with the Harvard School of Public Health. My senior thesis was “Cryogenic Freeze Trapping and Identification of Organic Pollutants in the Upper Ohio Valley Ambient Air.”

Decades have passed since completion of this study and some improvements in air quality have been made, many due to the downturn of the steel industry. However, the 2018 Report of the American Lung Association’s State of the Air still lists the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton metro area as the eighth most polluted by year-round particulate (2.5 micrometers) pollution. The area has a high rate of both pediatric and adult asthma as well as COPD and lung cancer.

In light of these facts, is it wise for the Ohio Valley to take on the role of the new petrochemical hub of Appalachia? Data already reveals that when the Shell cracker plant in Monaca begins operations, it is projected to emit 30 tons of hazardous air pollutants such as benzene, toluene and other aromatic hydrocarbons similar to those emitted from the coke ovens that once operated on Brown’s Island.

This cracker plant is also projected to emit 159 tons per year of 2.5 micrometers particulate matter, the same small particulates that were studied in the Six Cities Study, which can be inhaled deep into the alveoli (tiny air sacs) within the lungs.

It is also projected to emit 522 tons of volatile organic compounds, those compounds in conjunction with ultraviolet light and nitrogen oxides (another air pollutant from cracker plants) create photochemical smog, which can increase eye inflammation as well as pulmonary diseases and asthma incidents.

Now the residents of the Belmont County area may be the new recipients of yet another ethane cracker plant, the Thailand-Based PTT Global Chemical Co. cracker plant. It is touted as being even bigger in size than the Shell plant in Monaca. If built, this cracker will greatly diminish the air quality of the region as well as affect water quality. Although county commissioners seem reluctant to address the concerns of citizens and questions about health and environmental issues of the proposed cracker plant, they are for the most part willing to champion the promise of jobs and economic development.

Additionally, the entire surrounding community will become collateral damage for the other externalities visited upon it from an increase in gas fracking, which include: More air and water pollution, truck traffic, water withdraws, injection wells, explosions and hundreds of miles of additional pipelines.

A recent report presented at the Shale Gas Extraction and Public Health Conference in Pittsburgh stated that a cracker plant can require development of at least 1,000 new frack pads yearly to keep up with gas demands.

Do we want this scenario for our valley, when we can have clean, green jobs? Why would we step back in time to become once again the dirtiest area in the nation?

If you dream of a future with a clean, healthy environment for your family, please attend the EPA Air Permit Hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Shadyside High School, or send comments to HClerk@epa.ohio.gov by Dec. 11, referring to Draft Permit No. P0124972 in your subject line.

(Pokladnik, a resident of Uhrichsville, has a Ph.D in environmental studies.)