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Written by Jill Hunkler, who has witnessed the devastating impacts of the petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Valley, including the devastating impacts of the oil and gas industry which provides the feedstock for plastic production. 

I had been living in a sacrifice zone due to the polluting and poorly regulated fracking operations for years when the petrochemical industry arrived creating even more toxic air and water pollution in the Ohio River Valley. Plastic production harms not only frontline communities, but the global community at large with a vast array of negative health impacts, and every aspect of our environment. Therefore, I urge officials to support a global plastics treaty that will address all aspects of the plastic pollution crisis at the upcoming  Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution.  Immediate and mass reduction in plastic production must be mandated, and then the implementation of the systems which free society from the needless reliance on plastic pursued. 

I consider myself a fracking  refugee. I was forced from my home that I built with my own hands at the headwaters of the historically pristine Captina Creek Watershed in Belmont County, Ohio, after being surrounded by oil and gas infrastructure and the associated pollution from a compressor station, 78 fracking wells, transfer stations and an interstate pipeline with numerous gathering pipelines—all within a five-mile radius of my home. I lived in the hollow below the oil and gas infrastructure. 

The air pollution emanating from these facilities contains volatile organic compounds, some of which are known carcinogens, that are heavier than air and hover in the hollows. I never imagined that my quiet, healthy, country way of life would disappear. The negative health impacts we experienced were too much to bear. First, we noticed the odors and had nose, eye, and throat irritation, as well as headaches. The symptoms worsened over time with nausea, vertigo, rashes, mental confusion, disorientation, numbness, and body aches and pains. True wealth is good health, and our health and happiness suffered as long as we stayed in the hollow.

Jill Hunkler stands in front of the Shell Plastic Plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Mark Dixon, Blue Lens LLC

Fracking in the Ohio River Valley

Due to the invasiveness of shale gas development, southeastern Ohio has been described by many as living in an occupied territory. Belmont County is the most heavily fracked in the state. Those of us living in these once peaceful hills are not only dealing with negative health impacts from the oil and gas industry. We are also experiencing unsafe roadways due to heavy industry traffic, air and noise pollution, public, well and spring water contamination, pipeline explosions and well pad fires, including one that contaminated a stream that feeds our mighty Ohio River, resulting in the death of 70,000 fish. 

Fracking for Plastics

Our water supplies are being depleted by industry withdrawals from our reservoirs, ponds, and streams. In 2018, a fracking well blowout in Belmont County caused one of the largest methane leaks in U.S. history, forcing area residents to evacuate from their homes. And in another horrifying instance, a fracking waste water truck accident contaminated Barnesville’s reservoir with radioactive materials. At the time of the truck accident and spill, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency water test results showed a spike in radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element that is brought to the surface during the fracking process.

The Ohio River Valley is not being fracked for energy independence, as were told, but instead for plastics.The fracking required to extract the fossil fuels for plastic production produces toxic, radioactive waste. This waste destroys massive amounts of precious freshwater for its singular use, and makes the region poorer rather than richer in the long run. There are 258 Class II wastewater injection wells in Ohio alone. More than 1.5 billion gallons of wastewater have been produced here. The plastics crisis includes the radioactive waste created by the extraction of materials for petrochemicals. There is no way to safely dispose of this waste and the only way to address it is to stop creating it and reduce plastic production.

A certified thermographer at Earthworks used an optical gas imaging camera to capture methane and other pollutants emitting from a compressor station owned by MarkWest Energy Partners in Barnesville, Ohio, USA. Oil and gas infrastructure like compressor stations move and process the chemicals that become the building blocks of plastics, called “petrochemicals”.

David vs Goliath Petrochemical Win

In the fall of 2023,  folks in Belmont County, Ohio  breathed a collective sigh of relief when a Thailand-based chemical company gave up its pursuit to build a toxic petrochemical facility in our backyards. 

It was a long-fought, David vs. Goliath battle, pitting locals against a foreign company that spent millions of dollars on lobbying and public relations to position itself as our economic savior. In truth, this project would only serve the bottom line of an international corporation, at the expense of the health and safety of our community.  In the end, a coalition of local advocates, environmental attorneys and conservation organizations showed Big Oil that we will not lie down and our communities will not trade our health for false promises.  

The saga around the petrochemical facility dates back to 2015, when Ohio Governor John Kasich and Thailand’s largest petrochemical company, PTTGCA, announced that Belmont County had been chosen for the construction of an ethane cracker plant that converts fossil fuels into single-use plastics.  

The PTTGCA facility would have been a major source of air pollution in surrounding communities, spewing cancer-causing pollutants and toxins that can cause damage to immune and reproductive systems. Numerous studies also show petrochemical plants are connected to neurological and respiratory issues in populations living near the facilities. 

It also would have emitted 1.8 millions tons of greenhouse gasses every year.

Industry executives and government officials promised the PTTGCA cracker plant would spur local economic growth, renewed business investment, and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. However, recent news suggests that oil and gas jobs often go to out-of-town workers, instead of employing locals.

Shell Plastics Case Study

We also have a harrowing petrochemical case-study right up the river, where a multinational oil company made the same claims, but the jobs have yet to materialize, and the local economy continues to struggle. 

In November 2022, a $14 billion Shell petrochemicals complex began operating in Beaver County, PA. So far, the plant has failed to live up to the promises made for economic development and prosperity for the region, even after receiving the largest taxpayer-funded subsidy in Pennsylvania history, and has been a source of alarming air pollution and potential health impacts on the community. 

A study from the Ohio River Valley Institute found that, since the Shell plastic plant was first announced in 2012, Beaver County has seen a declining population, zero reduction in poverty, zero growth in business, and zero growth in employment, even considering  all the temporary construction workers that built the plant. In fact, the county has fallen behind the state and the nation in nearly every measure of economic activity.

The Shell fracked plastic plant in Beaver, PA will make 1.6M tons of plastic while producing 2.2M tons of CO2 every year. Not to mention tons of pollution released into the community every year. Photo credit: Mark Dixon, Blue Lens LLC

The Shell cracker plant has been a source of alarming air pollution, caused  potential health impacts and created a nightmare for the environment and people living nearby. In the first year alone the facility blew through 4 different air pollution limits and exceeded a benzene permit limit and as of February 2024 had 41 malfunctions. These malfunctions triggered malodors, chemical spills, and flaring episodes that illuminated the night sky.

In May of 2023, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Shell almost $10 million for violating state air quality regulations, including exceeding 12-month emissions limits for VOCs, carbon monoxides, and nitrous oxides. This is one of the largest penalties in state history but threatens to position this large polluter in a “pay to pollute” relationship with regulators.  The plant also faces a federal lawsuit from The Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project for its repeated air pollution violations. 

The economic and environmental track record of Beaver County suggests that the petrochemical “boom” has turned out to be a bust. 

Local advocates will continue to challenge these facilities, the false promises and  expose the connection between fracking and cracking to make more plastic, which is the last thing this beautiful planet needs. 

We will persist and resist the petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley and beyond so that future generations don’t have to choose between a job and their health. Current and future generations are depending on us to make wise economic development decisions that prioritize the protection of our land, and the health and safety of the people. It’s what residents of the Ohio River Valley deserve.