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Guest column/We’re past time for global plastic intervention

Civilization stands at the edge of a dangerous precipice. Warning signs are all around us. We are destroying our home. The bushfires in Australia serve as another example of the many ways climate change has exacerbated extreme weather across the planet.

Scientists say an area twice the size of the country of Wales, nearly 14 million acres, has burned. The fires have killed close to a billion animals and released a pulse of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere equivalent to half of Australia’s annual emissions.

2019 was a record-breaking year for a number of record high temperatures, and also was the second warmest year ever recorded. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the last six years have been the hottest six years on record, and July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded.

Our atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at 411 ppm, which means they are higher now than at any other time in the past 800,000 years. While climate data shows there were periods millions of years ago when carbon dioxide levels were higher, the rate today at which we are adding greenhouse gases to our atmosphere is unprecedented. NOAA reported, “the annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than any previous natural increase.” Scientific facts confirm the massive amounts of man-made greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere are changing the planet’s climate systems.

It is sad that in 2020 we still have local, state and federal elected officials who engage in willful ignorance and denial. However, what is not surprising is that the fossil fuel industry was aware that burning coal, oil and gas would increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to increases in the planet’s temperature. Their scientists knew this more than 50 years ago.

However, much like the tactics used in the 1970s by the tobacco industry, fossil fuel corporations crafted a message of denial and continue to fund campaigns and organizations which serve to perpetuate the idea that climate change is a hoax.

We must remember that this industry is responsible for: 11 million gallons of oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989; 168 million gallons of oil that contaminated the gulf waters after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010; and locally, the well pad explosion in Belmont County in 2018 that spewed out 90 tons of methane an hour for 20 days. Can we trust this industry?

The plans to create a petrochemical hub in the Ohio Valley happened behind closed doors with little to no input from the public.

I have been to both Ohio EPA water and air permit public meetings and several other community meetings discussing the possible construction of a cracker plant in Belmont County. For the most part, these meetings afford the citizens only token participation as the permits are ultimately approved.

EPA permits do not guarantee safety. A permit is simply a piece of paper that sets arbitrary limits on how much toxic air and water emissions will be allowed to exit an industrial facility. A similar cracker plant near Monaca will be allowed to emit 522 tons of volatile organic compounds, 159 tons of respirable particulate matter, 30 tons of hazardous air pollutants and 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Permits do not make toxins safe nor do they guarantee there will not be more releases or accidents.

Instead of accepting the corporate assurances of safety and jobs, our politicians should be educating themselves with a rigorous examination of peer- reviewed scientific data on the toxicity of plasticizers, the threat to the Ohio River and the effects of increasing toxic air emissions in the valley. At the very least, they should be researching economic development projects that do not require that the valley once again sacrifices clean air and water to another boom-and-bust fossil fuel endeavor.

Instead, our politicians have bent over backward to encourage these projects by granting tax breaks, seeking federal loan guarantees, writing laws to criminalize free speech, weakening state water regulations and passing legislation to prohibit communities from regulating single-use plastics. As if that isn’t enough, according to a 2019 report published in the Atlantic, the world subsidized fossil fuels by $5.2 trillion in 2017. Let that sink in; we are subsidizing the demise of our planet.

Local residents trying to speak truth to power may have some allies in this David-and- Goliath battle to stop plastic making cracker plants. The movement to reduce single-use plastics has gone global. Given the alarming amount of plastic wastes and microplastics in our water, food, and air, many countries are now banning single-use plastic packaging which makes up close to 50 percent of plastic waste and is discarded within minutes of use. More than 60 counties have banned or taxed single-use plastic bags.

Countries like China that once accepted our plastic wastes, which totaled 39 million tons last year, are now refusing our wastes. By 2021, Thailand and Malaysia will ban imported plastic waste. Where will all that plastic go?

Incineration creates deadly emissions like dioxin and furans.

At their current usage rate, our landfills in Ohio have, according to the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, about a 40-year capacity left.

The United States recycles only 9 percent of plastic wastes. We will be drowning in plastic if the fossil fuel industry has its way.

According to ICIS, a global energy and petrochemical research firm, “U.S. producers of polyethylene plan to increase their production capacity by as much as 75 percent by 2022,” and much of this increase will be exported to foreign markets.

It is beyond time for a global plastic intervention, but don’t count on our politicians to take a leadership role. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

(Pokladnik, a resident of Uhrichsville, is an environmental scientist.)

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