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Trading Health for Jobs?

Ethane cracking plants release tons of smog causing compounds into the air.  (Secl/Wikimedia Commons)
Ethane cracking plants release tons of smog causing compounds into the air. (Secl/Wikimedia Commons)
July 20, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- An ethane cracker plant planned for Beaver County may bring about 600 jobs to the area, but residents fear it will also bring health problems. The multibillion dollar plant will turn ethane into ethylene, a basic ingredient in many plastics. But environmentalists point out the facility will also send hundreds of tons of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides into the air every year.

Each of these components is hazardous on its own, said Patrice Tomcik with Moms Clean Air Force, but when those elements combine in sunlight, they form smog that can burn children's lung tissue and adversely affect lung development.

"It also exacerbates asthma attacks,” Tomcik said. "Asthma is the leading cause of missed school days among children ages 5 to 17."

Supporters of the project said it would be a big boost to the local economy and could trigger major spending on improved infrastructure along that part of the Ohio River.

But the air quality in the area is already some of the worst in the country, said Tomcik. In fact, Shell, the company building the plant, needs to buy pollution credits to operate it.

“So we're adding to the issue of very poor air quality and the people who are going to suffer the most are the people who are in the area,” she said.

Local residents have asked Shell to at least install fence-line monitoring along the perimeter of the plant so the company can know how much pollution is escaping into the air.

While there may be economic benefits to building the plant, Tomcik said, public health should never be compromised to create jobs.

"If there's a way to do this in a better manner, everything that is possible and available should be put into this plant to protect the people who are living near it,” she said.

Read more about the potential impacts of the plant here.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA