Guest column/Don’t put future in hands of politicians

Many Ohio Valley residents are skeptical about plans to make our valley the next petrochemical region of the United States. Using the promise of jobs, officials repeatedly try to sell us on ethane cracker plants and the rest of the “Appalachian storage hub.” But, when I’ve questioned these officials about health, safety and pollution issues for the cracker plant proposed near my home, their line is: “The EPA approved the permit and says it is safe, so it will be.”

However, do we really know how or why any permit is approved by the state or federal EPA? Are these permits analyzed based on scientific data or are “economic benefits” becoming the new criteria to evaluate and grant permit applications?

In a Dec. 26 press release, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler states, “Ohio EPA is proud to be a part of the effort to bring critical jobs to Ohio, with issuance today of the final environmental permit PTTGC America needs to proceed with its ethane cracker plant.” (PTTGC is a Thai petrochemical corporation.)

The Tri-State Area has seen its fair share of industrial accidents. An explosion at the Browns Island coke plant in 1972 killed 21 men. Our family lived a mile away from the plant and our next door neighbor was one of those killed. In 1988, a 3.8-million-gallon diesel oil tank owned by Ashland Oil collapsed, spilling 1 million gallons of fuel into the Monongahela River.

Eventually the spill worked its way down the Ohio River. Some communities were without water for eight days, and thousands of birds and fish were killed. A public health emergency was declared as 242 families near the spill were evacuated.

In July of 2013, the Thermal Heritage Toxic Waste Incinerator in East Liverpool experienced an explosion. In 2014, more than 300,000 West Virginia residents were subjected to contaminated water as a spill of a toxic chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, entered the Elk River and the drinking water supply of central West Virginia.

The accidents are reason enough to worry about the construction of a massive petrochemical complex in the Ohio River Valley. But those of us who are old enough remember that in 1997, the judgment of the Ohio EPA was called into question. Their “monitoring and enforcement arm,” the North Ohio Valley Air Authority, was investigated by the state auditor and found guilty of several improprieties, including collecting paychecks from the companies they were supposed to be monitoring. According to a 1997 article in the Akron Beacon Journal, “The Ohio EPA knew the agency had a record of incompetence in air monitoring but continued its annual contract.”

Things don’t seem to be better today. At the federal level, as an investigation by Sheila Kaplan with the Harvard Center for Ethics notes, public trust in the EPA is down and “many staffers themselves believe that the EPA has been hobbled by political pressure, forced to ignore relevant science and slow to act against known hazards to avoid damaging industry.”

While there are still dedicated employees who believe in the EPA’s mission, practices such as “the revolving door between EPA and industry, former lawmakers who lobby to weaken environmental regulations and exemptions and pressure from lawmakers beholden to donors” have emasculated the agency.

At the federal level we also are witnessing attempts to roll back all kinds of regulatory safeguards. One disingenuously named regulatory change, the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” would prevent the EPA from using health studies unless the participants’ private health information is made publicly available. An article in Scientific American explains that this regulation would exclude many health studies, such as the famous Harvard Six Cities Study, conducted in Steubenville. In 1976, I worked as an intern on the initial data collection for this study. The final results showed the impact of chronic air pollution on health and pointed to the dangers of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. The proposed cracker plant in Shadyside would emit approximately 86 tons per year of this pollutant, along with 396 tons per year of volatile organic compounds.

In that recent press release Ohio EPA Director Butler says, “We have been careful to ensure this facility will not have an adverse impact on the air, water or health of the surrounding communities.” However, no one, not even the director of the Ohio EPA, can make that guarantee and even if these facilities were able to operate within the set guidelines, they will still add loads of pollution to the air and water.

To understand the types and scale of pollution a petrochemical complex would release, take a look at the toxic release inventory data for the petrochemical corridor in Louisiana, and listen to what the people living near this corridor, dubbed Cancer Alley, have to say.

Assurances by regulatory agencies that they will only permit pollution in “acceptable levels as defined by state and federal laws” do not mean that our children will be safe and our valley will remain unchanged by the buildup of an industry notorious for pollution and accidents.

The Ohio River supplies drinking water to 5 million people and already has been dubbed the most polluted river in the nation.

All of the region’s inhabitants will be affected by declines in air and water quality. Only a few residents will work or receive monetary benefits from these facilities.

We all should have a say in our region’s future. The decision should not be placed in the hands of local and state politicians with little to no scientific knowledge, nor government agencies that have been shown time and time again to be incapable of making decisions based on sound scientific evidence.

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