The massive, unregulated source of plastic pollution you’ve probably never heard of

NEW ORLEANS — On an overcast day in April, on the edge of Chalmette Battlefield, a few miles outside the city, Liz Marchio examined a pile of broken twigs and tree branches on the bank of the Mississippi River. “Usually I try to look — oh, there’s one,” said Marchio, a research associate for the Vertebrate Museum at Southeastern Louisiana University. She bent down to pick up something with a pinch of her thumb and forefinger and placed it in her palm for me to see.
The object in Marchio’s hand was small, round, and yellowish-white, about the size of a lentil. It looked like an egg, as if a fish or salamander or tadpole could come wriggling out of it. Marchio handed it to me and turned to flip over a tree branch floating in the water, where dozens more lay waiting underneath. She made a sound of disgust. We had come hunting, and we had quickly found our quarry: nurdles.
A nurdle is a bead of pure plastic. It is the basic building block of almost all plastic products, like some sort of synthetic ore; their creators call them “pre-production plastic pellets” or “resins.” Every year, trillions of nurdles are produced from natural gas or oil, shipped to factories around the world, and then melted and poured into molds that churn out water bottles and sewage pipes and steering wheels and the millions of other plastic products we use every day. You are almost certainly reading this story on a device that is part nurdle.
That is the ideal journey for a nurdle, but not all of them make their way safely to the end of a production line. As Marchio and I continued to make our way upriver toward New Orleans’ French Quarter, she began collecting nurdles in ziplock bags, marking in red Sharpie the date, location, number of beads collected, and the time taken to collect them.

Nurdles mix easily with the debris floating in the Mississippi River.

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Liz Marchio collects nurdles beside a levee in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in April.

Neel Dhanesha/Vox

At one point, on the side of a levee outside the Lower Ninth Ward, she collected 113 nurdles in five minutes. This is not uncommon: An estimated 200,000 metric tons of nurdles make their way into oceans annually. The beads are extremely light, around 20 milligrams each. That means, under current conditions, approximately 10 trillion nurdles are projected to infiltrate marine ecosystems around the world each year.
Hundreds of fish species — including some eaten by humans — and at least 80 kinds of seabirds eat plastics. Researchers are concerned that animals that eat nurdles risk blocking their digestive tracts and starving to death. Just as concerning is what happens to the beads in the long term: Like most plastics, they do not biodegrade, but they do deteriorate over time, forming the second-largest source of ocean microplastics after tire dust. (A nurdle, being less than 5 millimeters around, is a microplastic from the moment of its creation, something also known as a primary microplastic.)
There’s much we still don’t know about how plastics can harm the bodies of humans and animals alike, but recent research has shown that microplastics can be found in the blood of as much as 80 percent of all adult humans, where they can potentially harm our cells. We may not eat the plastic beads ourselves, but nurdles seem to have a way of finding their way back to us.
In most of the United States, the federal and local government respond to nurdle spills big and small in the same way: by doing practically nothing. Nurdles are not classified as pollutants or hazardous materials, so the Coast Guard, which usually handles cleanups of oil or other toxic substances that enter waterways, bears no responsibility for them.
Likewise, most state governments have no rules in place around monitoring, preventing, or cleaning up nurdle spills; a spill is often an occasion of great confusion as local and state environmental agencies try to figure out who might be responsible for managing it. In the eyes of the federal government and every state except California, which began regulating marine plastics in 2007, nurdles are essentially invisible. For all official purposes, a nurdle that has escaped into the wild may as well have entered a black hole.
“Here in Louisiana, we’re making these nurdles and basically spilling oil, just in a different form,” said Mark Benfield, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University who studies microplastics, “And no one notices it, and no one seems to do anything about it.”

A nurdle often escapes from the plastic production process in mundane ways, slipping into drains at factories or spilling out of cargo containers while being transported by trains and ships. When nurdles are being loaded into trains, for example, they are often blown into rail cars using large hoses. The beads can leak around the edges of hoses at factories and out the sides of rail cars as they travel to distribution centers; Benfield and Marchio have both found nurdles lining the sides of tracks used by nurdle-carrying trains.
Sometimes, however, a large spill — often during transportation — will send millions or even billions of nurdles out into the world all at once, coating shorelines with deposits so thick they could be mistaken for banks of snow.
In May 2021, a container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka caught fire and sank, releasing an estimated 1,680 metric tons of nurdles in an incident the United Nations called “the single largest plastic spill on record.” About a year earlier, in August 2020, a storm hit a ship docked at the port of New Orleans, knocking a container filled with bags of nurdles into the Mississippi River. Hundreds of millions of beads escaped from their bags, coating local beaches in white plastic and floating down toward the Gulf of Mexico. They would remain long after the spill; Marchio pointed to a small dimple on the side of the first nurdle we found that identified it as a likely remnant of that spill.
“Big spills, like by ship containers and barge … that’s probably about once a year,” said Jace Tunnell, director of the University of Texas’ Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve and founder of the Nurdle Patrol citizen science project, which asks contributors to count nurdles on their local beaches and uses the data to create a map of the pollution.
The map could easily be mistaken for a map of plastic production sites: The vast majority of red and purple dots, which correspond to particularly high levels of nurdles, appear in the petrochemical hubs of Texas and Louisiana. “What happens every single day — it’s a chronic problem — is the loss of pellets during on-loading and off-loading and during transportation,” Tunnell said.
Most plastic does not biodegrade, and a spilled nurdle does not simply disappear. Many wash up on shorelines, like the ones Marchio and I saw, where they easily blend in with the sand, shells, and assorted debris; if undisturbed, they will likely remain there for hundreds if not thousands of years.
A nurdle in the wild is a sneaky thing. Even before it starts breaking down, it is difficult to spot from afar, unlike the plastic bags or bottles we often associate with plastic pollution. It does not give off a heat signature or emit fumes, or create a sheen on the surface of water the way an oil spill might. What it does do is attract toxic pollutants. A nurdle floating down, say, the Mississippi River will absorb the pollutants riding alongside it while sloughing off the water, Benfield told me. It also provides a convenient home for phytoplankton, which will go on to attract zooplankton, which eat the phytoplankton and emit dimethyl sulfide — better known as the smell of the sea.
For many marine animals, the smell of the sea is the smell of food. Seabirds like albatrosses and petrels track dimethyl sulfide to locate patches of plankton from afar, swooping down to pluck their plankton-eating prey out of the water. A nurdle is the size and shape of a fish egg; its camouflage is nearly perfect after some time in the water, looking and smelling like easy pickings to fish, birds, turtles, and crustaceans alike.
Once eaten, nurdles can tangle a creature’s intestines or make it feel as if it is full, said Benfield. A 1992 EPA report found that at least 80 species of seabirds ate nurdles; Benfield said that number has since more than doubled. Plastics provide no nutrients to animals, but an animal that fills up on the beads will eat less food as a result, meaning it could starve to death without even knowing it was starving — especially if its digestive tract is too small to pass the nurdle. Photographs from the aftermath of the spill in Sri Lanka showed fish filled with the pellets, white plastic lining their insides.

A dead fish with a mouth full of nurdles washed ashore on a beach near Wellawatta in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after a container ship caught fire and sank near the Colombo harbor in May 2021.

Saman Abesiriwardana/Pacific Press/Shutterstock

A crab makes its way across a Sri Lankan beach covered in nurdles days after the container ship sank. There were 87 shipping containers of nurdles on board.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Plastics are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can stunt an animal’s development, and researchers are studying whether toxic pollutants can pass from a nurdle into an animal’s tissue and subsequently up the food chain. But measuring the full impact is difficult, in part because it’s difficult to know exactly what causes a marine animal to die in a world that is increasingly hostile to marine animals.
Preventing nurdle spills, say Tunnell and Benfield, would involve a number of deceptively simple changes. Companies can place containers in loading areas to catch any nurdles that fall during their loading and unloading from rail cars, install screens on storm drains to catch beads that wash away, or make the bags they’re packed into before being shipped out of a sturdier material so they’re less likely to split open. Workers can double-check valves on rail cars to make sure they’re fully tightened and vacuum up nurdles that spill onto factory floors.
Cleaning nurdles up after they’ve spread through an ecosystem is much harder, and no one wants to be responsible for it. The most promising solutions so far involve machines that are essentially vacuums with sieves that filter out sand while sucking up the nurdles. But they have yet to be widely tested, let alone adopted, and they’d be of little use cleaning up beads in the water.
Nurdles have a significant impact on the environment long before they are formed, as well. The vast majority of the plastics plants in the United States are located alongside communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution. Those plants emit a toxic mixture of pollutants including ethylene oxide, styrene, and benzene; there are so many petrochemical plants located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that the area has become known as “cancer alley.”
The tide may slowly be turning: Last year, residents of Louisiana’s majority-Black St. James Parish managed to delay the construction of a massive new plastics plant in their community, arguing that they’d suffer undue environmental harm, but the plants that are already in the area will continue to pump out both nurdles and the pollutants that come from making them.
As the world moves toward renewable energy and demand for fossil fuels is expected to peak in the near future, the oil and gas industry is increasingly shifting its business focus to plastic production. Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050 thanks to a fracking boom in the United States that makes natural gas extremely cheap to produce. That will lead to a rise in nurdle production. The question on researchers’ minds is where these beads will end up.

Mark Benfield scrunched up his face as he bent at the waist to examine the sand below him, placing his hands on his knees for support and looking a bit like a human-sized question mark. “This is hard on your back,” said Benfield. “A few decades from now we’ll all have nurdle-related back issues. Nurdle-osis, like scoliosis,” he joked.
We were standing on the beach at Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge, on the Gulf of Mexico a couple of hours’ drive south of New Orleans. The beach was empty aside from Benfield, myself, a couple of LSU students, and the occasional crab or seagull. This was the place where, in 2021, Benfield had found hundreds of nurdles nestled in the dunes, indicating a spill somewhere offshore. At first, Benfield thought they may have been the remnants of the 2020 spill in New Orleans. “But when we started to look at the shape and the weights, they were different,” Benfield said, “so there was some big spill of nurdles that we didn’t even know happened.”

Mark Benfield searches for nurdles at the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. “Your eyes start to get a search image for them after a while,” Benfield said.

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Mark Benfield holds a nurdle he found. Nurdles are usually smaller than 5 millimeters around, making them primary microplastics.

Neel Dhanesha/Vox

By the time Benfield and I went to Elmer’s Island, most of those nurdles had disappeared. Storms had eaten away at the dunes, and the wind likely pushed the beads inland to the marsh just north of where we were standing, where they would quickly settle into the mud and become unrecoverable. Within a few minutes of arriving, however, Benfield found one hidden amid a pile of sticks that had washed up on the sand. “This must be pretty recent,” he said; it had probably washed in with the tide a day or two ago, though there was no way to tell when it had spilled or where it had come from. Benfield produced a ziplock from a pocket of his cargo pants and dropped the nurdle inside.
The sound of shells crunching underneath our shoes accompanied us as we made our way up the beach; occasionally, Benfield would drop to his hands and knees to check whether he was looking at a nurdle or a shell. “I used to come to the beach to look for shark teeth,” Benfield said. “Now I’m looking for nurdles.”
That changed for Benfield after the 2020 spill in New Orleans. While he had been studying microplastics in the Gulf of Mexico since 2015 and found nurdles in the Mississippi River during previous research trips, he’d only ever pulled a handful out of the river at most; that August, they blanketed the banks. Benfield recruited Marchio, who worked for the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park at the time, to help document the spill, and together they spent days traveling to points along the Mississippi River, laying down square frames and counting tens of thousands of beads in the space of a single square foot.
As the local community learned about the spill through local news outlets and word of mouth, concerned residents organized cleanup efforts. Word got out that Benfield was interested in the nurdles, and people began sending him samples. At one point, Marchio found an entire bag of nurdles, practically intact, underneath a wharf in New Orleans. The name of the manufacturer, Dow Chemical, was still clearly stamped on the bag, along with a warning: “DO NOT DUMP INTO ANY SEWERS, ON THE GROUND, OR INTO ANY BODY OF WATER.”

Mark Benfield holds a nearly intact bag of nurdles recovered after a container full of nurdles fell off a ship docked in New Orleans in 2020.

Neel Dhanesha/Vox

While Benfield, Marchio, and the volunteers busied themselves with trying to document and clean up the spill, state and federal agencies spent weeks trying to decide who, if anyone, ought to be responsible for oversight of the spill and any potential cleanup.
While the Coast Guard usually takes responsibility for cleanups of oil and toxic substances that spill into waterways, it has no responsibility for nontoxic spills. Because nurdles aren’t deemed hazardous to human health under federal or Louisiana state law, a court had to decide which agency, if any, was responsible for cleaning up the spill, said Gregory Langley, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “The problem with court action is it’s not instantaneous,” Langley said.
The Mississippi River, of course, was not beholden to the courts; while the agencies waited and debated whose job it was to clean up the nurdles, the current carried them downriver. “If you lose something in the river,” said Langley, “it’s gone.”
About three weeks after the spill, the ship’s operator paid for a small crew of men with booms, leaf blowers, and butterfly nets to clean up a small section of the river. The voluntary cleanup, the DEQ reasoned, rendered waiting for the court a moot point; no determination was made about which agency, if any, would have been responsible for the spill.
That cleanup crew was mostly for show, Benfield told me, and most of the nurdles had already disappeared, carried downriver by the current and blown away by the wind. The DEQ still doesn’t know who would be responsible for cleaning up such a spill in the future. “All of that is subject to court action,” Langley told me. So the DEQ would still have to wait for a court decision in the event of a future spill.
Benfield and Marchio have since become the de facto Louisiana outpost of a countrywide effort to document, map, and, eventually (they hope) stop nurdle spills. In the aftermath of the 2020 spill, Benfield turned his lab in LSU’s Baton Rouge campus into a sort of evidence room. When I visited, jars of nurdles lined the countertop by a sink; dozens more were packed into boxes, ready to be shipped to Jace Tunnell in Texas so he could include them in teaching kits he sends to schools around the country. The bag of nurdles Marchio found underneath the wharf in New Orleans sat in one corner, next to a bucket filled with a mixture of sand, twigs, and nurdles brought in by a well-meaning local who helped with the cleanup in 2020.
When Benfield finds new nurdles, he analyzes them under a spectrometer to see what they are made of; he hopes to eventually build a database of nurdles so that they can be traced back to their origin. In an ideal world, he’d receive samples of nurdles from plastics manufacturers that could make that sort of tracing easier, but he doubts they would be open to the idea; there’s no business case for accountability, he reasons.

Benfield analyzes a nurdle found at the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge using a spectrometer in his lab at Louisiana State University. He hopes to eventually build a database of nurdles that can be used to trace them to their source.

Neel Dhanesha/Vox

“It’s ridiculous. If I went to the river and tossed in hundreds of plastic bags, I’d be in trouble,” Benfield said. Under Louisiana law, he would likely be fined somewhere between $500 and $1,000 for littering, at the least, and have to serve a few hours in a litter abatement program. “But because (the nurdles) are so small,” he continued, “the companies get away with it.”
Being the documenter of plastic pellets is thankless work. There’s little funding for researching them, and Benfield, Marchio, and Tunnell often speak with the air of people resigned to the seemingly quixotic quest of tilting at nurdles. “Nurdles infiltrate your brain,” Marchio said to me once. “I have to remember that my role is monitoring, not cleaning. If I try to clean, I’ll just get frustrated.”

So what does doing something about nurdles look like?
The plastics industry’s stance on plastic pollution at large has long been that recycling needs to be improved. More responsible consumer behavior and waste-management practices, the industry line goes, will bring post-consumer plastics back to manufacturers that can reuse them. But a nurdle almost never reaches a consumer’s hands in its base form, and asking consumers to solve the nurdle problem through recycling would be akin to asking drivers to clean up an oil spill by conserving the fuel in their cars. Unlike a finished plastic product, the solution to nurdle spills, like nurdles themselves, will have to be found somewhere in the plastic production process.
For a brief moment a few years ago, it seemed as though the answer could come from the courts. In 2019, a federal judge in Texas approved a $50 million settlement in a case brought by Diane Wilson, a retired shrimper, which alleged that a plant run by the Taiwanese plastics giant Formosa Plastics had violated its permits by illegally discharging nurdles into the water in and around Lavaca Bay, on the Gulf Coast in Calhoun County, Texas.
The settlement, which was the largest of its kind in American history to result from a civil environmental lawsuit, included a consent decree that committed Formosa to “zero discharge” standards. In other words, the company’s plant at Lavaca Bay’s Point Comfort had to stop releasing pellets into the water or risk fines of up to $10,000 for each violation in the first year, increasing annually to a maximum of $54,000 per violation.
Formosa isn’t quite keeping its end of the bargain. Since it began operations in June 2021, said Wilson, a wastewater monitoring facility set up to keep tabs on Formosa’s pellet discharge has logged at least 239 violations, for fines totaling $5.3 million and counting. “The implementing of this consent decree is the hardest thing we have ever done,” said Wilson, who at 73 years old has been an environmental activist for more than 30 years. “You’ve got to be on them all the time. Most of my life is almost full-time Formosa.”
For Formosa, which is the sixth-largest chemical company in the world with sales of $27.7 billion in 2020, a $5.3 million fine is “almost like the cost of doing business,” Tunnell said. At least for now, it seems it’s cheaper to simply keep racking up those small fines over time than to make any potential large investments that would be needed to stop the nurdles from spilling in the first place.
In the meantime, Wilson told me, fishers in Lavaca Bay continue to pull up fish with nurdles in their guts; oyster fishers have found the beads nestled in their catch like pearls. The area is home to a mercury superfund site — an EPA designation for contaminated industrial areas that receive funding for cleanup efforts — that was closed to fishing for decades due to the threat of mercury poisoning. Mercury has already devastated local marine life; now, Wilson says researchers and activists are concerned the nurdles may absorb the mercury and become vectors that can carry the mercury beyond Lavaca Bay. “People just ignore it,” Wilson said.

The Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas, south of Houston, in November 2021. It set up shop here in 1983, near the waters where shrimpers used to catch shrimp in abundance.

Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images

Former shrimper Diane Wilson outside the Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas, in November 2021. Wilson has been documenting alleged pollution by Formosa for years.

Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images

While Wilson’s lawsuit was a remarkable victory, it was also an indicator of the difficulty of addressing nurdle pollution piecemeal. Wilson and her collaborators spent years collecting thousands of beads from around the area — including one discharge site in the middle of the water, which Wilson had to kayak out to — and it was only through amassing a mountain of evidence that she was able to convince a judge that Formosa’s Point Comfort plant was responsible for the beads that were washing up in the area. Attributing nurdles to a particular source is difficult, and repeating the feat would require a similar effort for every nurdle production plant in the country.
“I think the best place to start is to take a small step backward and recognize we have laws on the books already that are meant to regulate pollution and emissions from manufacturing and production facilities,” said Anja Brandon, US plastics policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to protect oceans and marine life. “Namely in this instance, the Clean Water Act, kind of our bedrock environmental law.”
The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 after the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in 1969, drawing national attention to the country’s polluted waterways. Today, the act regulates the discharge of various pollutants into waters around the country; it’s a major reason why many of the nation’s rivers are cleaner now than they were 50 years ago.
“These laws haven’t been updated to meet the needs of the moment,” said Brandon. In most of the country, she explained, “plastic nurdles have essentially gotten off scot free because they have yet to be classified or specifically labeled as a pollutant.” The rare exception is California, which in 2007 became the first and so far only state to pass a law classifying nurdles as pollutants to be regulated under the Clean Water Act, citing their contribution to litter on beaches and the possibility that they could be mistaken for food by marine animals.
Lawmakers in Texas and South Carolina have introduced similar legislation, though both bills seem stuck. The Texas bill, introduced in the House by representative Todd Hunter last year, never moved forward, while the South Carolina bill passed the state senate in 2021 but was recently shelved in the House.
Closing the nurdle loophole, says Brandon, would require classifying nurdles as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act at the federal level. Lawmakers have shown some support for this approach: In 2020, then-Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act, which would have put in place wide-ranging regulations on plastics and recycling.
Identical bills were reintroduced in the House by Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and in the Senate by Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in March 2021, but neither bill has moved beyond committee. In April 2021, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the much shorter and more tightly focused Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which would give the EPA regulatory control over nurdles through the Clean Water Act; that bill has also been stalled.
The plastics industry is opposed to both bills. “We do not think that plastics belong in the environment. They belong in the economy,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, a major plastics industry trade group. That said, he continued, “The Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act is really a bad piece of legislation. It has a very nice title. But it can be very misleading to the average person.”
Legislation like the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act or the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, Baca argued, are disguised attempts to simply shut down plastic manufacturing in the US more broadly. “We generally think that the best approach here is to think about this holistically in a way that looks at loss across the entire value chain and puts in place best practices to avoid the loss within the environment,” he continued.
Baca pointed to Operation Clean Sweep, or OCS, a voluntary program run by the American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association that’s meant to curb nurdle leaks and spills but maintains no oversight mechanism and imposes no penalty for failure to comply.
“Many of our companies are inserting state-of-the-art technology within their facilities … to ensure that they limit the loss of pellets going on,” Baca said. When I asked Baca for more information, he demurred, citing the possible use of proprietary technology.
Formosa Plastics, the subject of Diane Wilson’s lawsuit, is not only a participant in Operation Clean Sweep but also a member of OCS blue, a “data-driven VIP member offering” of Operation Clean Sweep that “enhances the commitment to management, measurement, and reporting of unrecovered plastic releases into the environment from resin handling facilities.” Members receive plaques commemorating their enrollment.

Nurdles seen under a microscope. The nurdle in the middle has begun degrading through exposure to the elements; the white ones nearby are from recent spills and haven’t been in the environment long enough to start degrading. It is estimated nurdles can stay in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Neel Dhanesha/Vox

“I think they have a lot of good practices that ought to be mandatory, but they’re voluntary,” said Tunnell. “That obviously does not work. There needs to be accountability.” One way to create that accountability, Tunnell told me, would be to classify plastic pellets as hazardous substances outright, which would not only bring much tighter scrutiny to the production process but also give the Coast Guard the authority to coordinate and perform cleanups whenever a spill occurs. This is something like the nuclear option for nurdles, and would no doubt be the subject of stiff opposition from the plastics industry if it ever becomes a matter of debate.
For Tunnell, the stakes are existential. A failure to stop nurdles from spilling would be like giving up on the future of our world. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the next generation,” Tunnell said. “These plastic pellets will be around for hundreds of years. It’s not like they dissolve. They’re just accumulating and accumulating, and even if you’re in high school right now, your great-grandkids will see the same pellets on the beach. So I think we owe it to my great-grandkids and their great-grandkids to do something about this now.”

Man swims through ocean garbage patch for months, finds amazing life

During the summer of 2019, distance swimmer Ben Lecomte planned one of his most ambitious expeditions yet, to raise awareness for a man-made problem that is already causing massive issues for marine life: plastic pollution. On his journey through the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he found large pieces of debris like a toilet seat and a hardhat, innumerable amounts of microplastic—and, most surprisingly, a bountiful supply of small and large marine organisms living in and around the pollution. Lecomte swam through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a heterogeneous collection of micro- and macro-plastics suspended in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California, and partnered with researchers to study the contents of the trash gyre. Throughout the two-and-a-half-month expedition, he swam 338 nautical miles in 44 separate legs—a record-setting distance—spending around six hours each day facedown in a sea of microplastics. “At its highest concentration, it looked like a snowstorm,” he said. “It was disgusting, and very, very disturbing.”Discovered in 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a plastic accumulation zone, where the ocean’s currents bring together debris from around the world. If the ocean is a dirty bathtub, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the vortex of trash formed when you pull out the drain stopper. It’s the largest and most infamous garbage patch, and research suggests it is rapidly growing. Humans have been devising ways to clean it up as long as we’ve known about it, mainly by using a method similar to trawl fishing to remove plastic floating on the surface of the ocean. New research conducted during Lecomte’s swim suggests that this technique may do more harm than good by scooping up naturally occurring communities of neuston, which are organisms that live on the ocean’s surface—even in the Great Garbage Patch.Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, used Lecomte’s voyage to study these life forms, which include snails, the Portuguese man o’ war, and rare blue sea dragons. These creatures do not swim so much as float, meaning they are at the whim of the ocean’s tide—not unlike the plastics that make up the patch. Lecomte also swam with other creatures that were not neuston, like fish and marine mammals.Helm and her team wanted to see if the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contained neuston at high concentrations, in addition to microplastics. In a preprint posted online in late April, the team presented evidence of copious neuston living throughout the patch and found a correlation between abundance of plastic and floating life. Trawling the ocean surface, then, would potentially also remove these small marine creatures.One way to think about their findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, is to picture a meadow where wind has dispersed both dandelion seeds and plastic bags in similar distributions.“We’ve been looking at this meadow and going, ‘Well, this is a dump,’ not seeing all the life that existed around the plastic and probably way, way before the plastic,” Helm said.Helm posted a thread on Twitter to debunk the myth that the areas in the patch replete with plastics are devoid of life. On the contrary, because of the food webs anchored by neuston, Lecomte said he swam with a sperm whale on a day that researchers aboard the support vessel measured some of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the water.It’s important to be clear that this is not an inspirational example of nature adapting to the anthropocene, nor does the research imply that plastics are somehow beneficial to neuston and other marine life. Rather, this is a textbook case of correlation, not causation, said Helm.“These animals are not interacting with plastic in a direct way,” she said. “They’re just being concentrated in the same way.”Still, some of the larger life forms that were not neuston did appear to have closer ties to the plastic. It was common for crabs living on larger pieces of trash in the patch to hitch a ride on Lecomte, going unnoticed until he reboarded the boat. And once, he said, he noticed a school of fish swimming underneath him before darting back to their home. Upon following them, he realized they were living around large pieces of debris. “They were leading me back to what had become their house,” he said.Though a number of sailors have traversed the region by ship, Lecomte is one of the only people on Earth to get an up-close look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He has spoken to sailors who tell him, “It doesn’t look that bad,” he said, because they can only see the water’s surface. The patch does not look like a concentrated island of trash, he added, but rather a swirling collection of debris underneath the surface of the water that takes hours of being immersed in it to fully wrap one’s head around its magnitude.Based on the research, Helm said that cleanup measures should take neuston into account. Current approaches largely rely on nets, which she likened to taking a “bulldozer” to the ocean’s surface.Over the course of his swim, Lecomte and his support crew found countless “ghost nets,” which are fishing nets that have been lost or abandoned at sea. Helm said organizations like the Ocean Voyages Institute use a more tailored approach to removing ghost nets; these may end up going gentler on neuston populations. She also said she wants to track the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over time to see how seasonality affects the concentration of neuston and plastic and determine whether the organisms live out their entire lives in the patch.Blaming the plastic, rather than the people who caused it to collect in the middle of the ocean, is counterproductive, Lecomte said. Each time he and his team found a large piece of manmade debris in the Garbage Patch, he contemplated the bad decisions that led to it coalescing with other plastic in the middle of the ocean.“It’s up to us to change our habits and to be better stewards of the environment. Right now, we suck at it.”

Man swims through ocean garbage patch for months, finds amazing life

During the summer of 2019, distance swimmer Ben Lecomte planned one of his most ambitious expeditions yet, to raise awareness for a man-made problem that is already causing massive issues for marine life: plastic pollution. On his journey through the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he found large pieces of debris like a toilet seat and a hardhat, innumerable amounts of microplastic—and, most surprisingly, a bountiful supply of small and large marine organisms living in and around the pollution. Lecomte swam through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a heterogeneous collection of micro- and macro-plastics suspended in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California, and partnered with researchers to study the contents of the trash gyre. Throughout the two-and-a-half-month expedition, he swam 338 nautical miles in 44 separate legs—a record-setting distance—spending around six hours each day facedown in a sea of microplastics. “At its highest concentration, it looked like a snowstorm,” he said. “It was disgusting, and very, very disturbing.”Discovered in 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a plastic accumulation zone, where the ocean’s currents bring together debris from around the world. If the ocean is a dirty bathtub, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the vortex of trash formed when you pull out the drain stopper. It’s the largest and most infamous garbage patch, and research suggests it is rapidly growing. Humans have been devising ways to clean it up as long as we’ve known about it, mainly by using a method similar to trawl fishing to remove plastic floating on the surface of the ocean. New research conducted during Lecomte’s swim suggests that this technique may do more harm than good by scooping up naturally occurring communities of neuston, which are organisms that live on the ocean’s surface—even in the Great Garbage Patch.Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, used Lecomte’s voyage to study these life forms, which include snails, the Portuguese man o’ war, and rare blue sea dragons. These creatures do not swim so much as float, meaning they are at the whim of the ocean’s tide—not unlike the plastics that make up the patch. Lecomte also swam with other creatures that were not neuston, like fish and marine mammals.Helm and her team wanted to see if the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contained neuston at high concentrations, in addition to microplastics. In a preprint posted online in late April, the team presented evidence of copious neuston living throughout the patch and found a correlation between abundance of plastic and floating life. Trawling the ocean surface, then, would potentially also remove these small marine creatures.One way to think about their findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, is to picture a meadow where wind has dispersed both dandelion seeds and plastic bags in similar distributions.“We’ve been looking at this meadow and going, ‘Well, this is a dump,’ not seeing all the life that existed around the plastic and probably way, way before the plastic,” Helm said.Helm posted a thread on Twitter to debunk the myth that the areas in the patch replete with plastics are devoid of life. On the contrary, because of the food webs anchored by neuston, Lecomte said he swam with a sperm whale on a day that researchers aboard the support vessel measured some of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the water.It’s important to be clear that this is not an inspirational example of nature adapting to the anthropocene, nor does the research imply that plastics are somehow beneficial to neuston and other marine life. Rather, this is a textbook case of correlation, not causation, said Helm.“These animals are not interacting with plastic in a direct way,” she said. “They’re just being concentrated in the same way.”Still, some of the larger life forms that were not neuston did appear to have closer ties to the plastic. It was common for crabs living on larger pieces of trash in the patch to hitch a ride on Lecomte, going unnoticed until he reboarded the boat. And once, he said, he noticed a school of fish swimming underneath him before darting back to their home. Upon following them, he realized they were living around large pieces of debris. “They were leading me back to what had become their house,” he said.Though a number of sailors have traversed the region by ship, Lecomte is one of the only people on Earth to get an up-close look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He has spoken to sailors who tell him, “It doesn’t look that bad,” he said, because they can only see the water’s surface. The patch does not look like a concentrated island of trash, he added, but rather a swirling collection of debris underneath the surface of the water that takes hours of being immersed in it to fully wrap one’s head around its magnitude.Based on the research, Helm said that cleanup measures should take neuston into account. Current approaches largely rely on nets, which she likened to taking a “bulldozer” to the ocean’s surface.Over the course of his swim, Lecomte and his support crew found countless “ghost nets,” which are fishing nets that have been lost or abandoned at sea. Helm said organizations like the Ocean Voyages Institute use a more tailored approach to removing ghost nets; these may end up going gentler on neuston populations. She also said she wants to track the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over time to see how seasonality affects the concentration of neuston and plastic and determine whether the organisms live out their entire lives in the patch.Blaming the plastic, rather than the people who caused it to collect in the middle of the ocean, is counterproductive, Lecomte said. Each time he and his team found a large piece of manmade debris in the Garbage Patch, he contemplated the bad decisions that led to it coalescing with other plastic in the middle of the ocean.“It’s up to us to change our habits and to be better stewards of the environment. Right now, we suck at it.”

In ‘Silent Spring,’ Rachel Carson described a fictional, bucolic hamlet, much like her hometown. Now, there’s a plastics plant under construction 30 miles away

SPRINGDALE, Pa.—If you stand in the sloping yard of the Rachel Carson Homestead and look southwest, down toward the Allegheny River, you can see the towers of the Cheswick Generating Station. Through the bare trees and thick green bramble that surround the house, the smokestacks emerge in the distance, twin pillars striped against a steel-silver sky. One is banded in orange and white, like a lighthouse; the other is dun-colored concrete. On this day in early spring, when birds are trilling and the smell of damp mulch fills the air, both towers are silent, because the plant was recently shut down.

When Rachel Carson was born here in 1907, this five-room white clapboard house about 18 miles east of Pittsburgh sat on 64 acres of farmland on the edge of town. The property included an apple and pear orchard, barn, and chicken coop. As a child, Carson explored the land around her home with enthusiasm. In one of her earliest essays, she writes about the trails “carpeted in fragrant pine needles” and the “thrill of exultation” she felt when she was outside on her own. Then, too, industry existed alongside the natural world; Carson would later recall the stench from the glue factory next to Springdale’s train station. When she was a teenager, West Penn Power built a coal power plant in Springdale. In her biography of Carson, Linda Lear writes about Carson’s adult distaste for what her hometown eventually became, “endlessly ugly” and “squeezed” between two “huge power stations.” 

In the famous opening of “Silent Spring,” Carson describes a fictional, bucolic hamlet, a literary echo of the Springdale she knew as a girl. She evokes a place that is still familiar to anyone who has spent time in Pennsylvanian woods. “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” she writes. “The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.” She writes about the vivid maples and striking birches, the nodding ferns and wildflowers, the deer and foxes and abundant fish who swim in clear, cold creeks, “the mists of the fall mornings.” Most of all, she writes about birds: the robins, wrens and doves whose voices come together in a “dawn chorus.”

Now the Carson homestead seems out of place on Marion Avenue, a relic from a bygone era. Tidy beds of tulips have replaced the wildflowers, and brick single-story houses and asphalt crowd in on all sides. The sounds of traffic and barking dogs and chatting neighbors cut through the birdsong, and the yard backs into Springdale High School’s parking lot. Springdale’s town website is proudly emblazoned with the slogan “The Power City,” while also offering information about Rachel Carson’s birthplace. Springdale is part of Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 17th Congressional district, one of 26 races that the Cook Political Report considers a toss-up for 2022. The issues of the environment, energy and jobs are front and center in the May 17 primary election election.

The Generating Station was permanently closed earlier this month after 50 years of operation. It was the last coal-fired power plant in the county and one of the last in Pennsylvania, and 50 people lost their jobs in the closure. The planned demolition of the plant stirred concern in some residents, who worried about the economic impact on businesses in their small community. GenOn Holdings, the plant’s owner, was also a source of financial support for Springdale in the form of donations to churches, parks, emergency management services, and projects like GenOn field, a baseball diamond built in 2012 for which the company donated more than $17,000.

Some residents were relieved to escape the plant’s pollutants (it was one of the largest sources of air pollution in the area) and eager to see the site converted into something else. In 2012, two Springdale residents filed a class-action lawsuit against GenOn, alleging that emissions from the station were damaging their property and making them “prisoners in their homes,” subject to “fly ash, barium compounds, copper compounds, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, hydrochloric acid,” and other harmful chemicals. One of the plaintiffs complained about “black particulates and sulfur odors” that she believed were causing her children to get headaches. The residents ultimately won the right to sue the plant, and that decision has been called “a guide for future plaintiffs” pursuing cases about local pollution.

Flowers grow in the yard of the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania, May 9, 2022. Credit: Katie Surma

Sometimes these opposing viewpoints are embodied in one person at the same time. “Me, personally, I think it’s good they’re shutting down,” a local worker told Trib Live in 2021, when the closure was announced. “I think that it’s going to be kind of good for the environment.” But he was also worried about the disappearance of the steady stream of customers patronizing Springdale’s bars, restaurants, and the beer distributor where he worked, Beer & Beyond.

This is an old story in Southwest Pennsylvania, a well-worn narrative about the hard choices to be made between opportunity and public health, prosperity and preservation, stability and safety. For nearly as long as there has been European settlement, people here have benefited from—and been subject to the dangers unleashed by—the fuels beneath their feet. In the past, it’s been a story about the cost of survival and what must be endured in order to get by, whether that meant “killer smog,” lung disease, or industrial accidents like the Harwick mine disaster of 1904, which killed 181 people in Cheswick, the town neighboring Springdale. Today, this familiar fight has taken on heightened urgency. Depending on who is telling the story, that urgency has been brought on by the climate crisis and the harmful effects of the fracking boom. Or it’s tied to gas prices, unemployment, and foreign oil.

Politicians, like the candidates running in the 17th Congressional district, try to have it both ways when it comes to jobs and the environment. The Democrats speak about the urgency of responding to climate change and tend to emphasize the jobs that could be created in that response, and Republicans promote oil and gas investment and fracking as engines of economic growth. Candidates from both parties say they want to protect residents from pollution. But few people think that it might be possible to craft an entirely new story about this part of the country, a story that doesn’t revolve around fossil fuels.

The Cheswick Generating Station and smokestacks located mere blocks from the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania on May 9, 2022. Credit: Katie Surma

Bob Schmetzer, a member of a local grassroots environmental group, the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, who has lived in the area all his life, explained the trade-offs as people perceive them by harkening back to the old days when so many depended on the steel mills for their livelihoods and grandmothers swept soot off their porches every night. The thinking went like this, he said: “As long as there is dirt to sweep, we’ll have food to eat.” 

“There’s a feeling of ‘we trade our health for jobs’ here,’” said Terrie Baumgardner, who works for the Clean Air Council in the region. “That’s what we do.”

A Plastics Plant 30 miles from Springdale

There is a story from Rachel Carson’s childhood about what first triggered her lifelong love for the ocean, the subject of so much of her writing. She grew up far from the sea, but townspeople in Springdale later remembered that she once found a “large fossilized shell in the rocky outcroppings of her family’s hillside property,” Lear writes, of a little girl gazing down on something left behind by an ancient ocean, captured in her palm. “She wondered where it had come from…and what had happened to the sea that had nurtured it so long ago.” Three hundred and ninety million years ago, western Pennsylvania was covered by an inland sea. Detritus from that sea eventually formed the Marcellus Shale, the vast deposit that is the source of the natural gas coveted by petroleum companies in the 21st century.

About 30 miles from Springdale, along the Ohio River in Beaver County in the town of Monaca, an ethane cracker plant being built by Royal Dutch Shell is the latest and largest development to take advantage of the natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale. “Cracker” is shorthand for the process used to break down the gas molecules into smaller molecules. It is slated to open sometime in 2022. During the construction, which began in 2017, parking lots for the struggling Beaver Valley Mall filled with buses for workers and cars with out of state license plates. 

The plant will use ethane to make 1.6 million tons a year of tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles,” which are “feedstock” that can be made into a range of plastic products. It is permitted to emit 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.

Each year, around 230,000 tons of nurdles find their way into Carson’s beloved oceans, where they are consumed by fish and wildlife; they are the ocean’s second-largest source of micropollutants. 

The plant “marks a major expansion of the natural gas industry into downstream supply chain production,” according to “When Fracking Comes to Town,” an academic anthology about natural gas extraction in America. It is the “first facility of its kind” in the Marcellus Shale, the “first investment by Royal Dutch Shell outside of the Gulf Coast area in 20 years,” and its construction was made possible by $1.7 billion in tax credits from the state. 

The cracker plant was built on the same site as a zinc smelting facility that was shut down in 2014, taking with it 600 jobs and thousands of dollars in local tax revenue. Though Shell  employed 6,000 workers during the construction phase, in normal operations, the company  expects to employ 600 people.

Rachel Carson’s Legacy

On an unusually hot spring day, I met with a group of people concerned about the Shell plant’s environmental and health impacts at the Allegheny Health Network’s Cancer Institute in Beaver County, a gleaming new building behind the mall and across from Rural King, a farm supply store. Warmth radiates through the soles of my shoes from the baking pavement; there is hardly any shade here, only a few spindly, immature trees. Where Rachel Carson was focused on the effects of pesticides used in agriculture, today many environmentalists in Pennsylvania are most worried about the powerful oil and gas industry and its encroachment on residential areas and public parks.

Karen Gdula arrived first, petite and friendly, though focused and matter-of-fact when she’s describing her experiences with the natural gas industry. In September 2018, Energy Transfer’s Revolution pipeline exploded behind her house on Ivy Lane, only a few miles away from where we were standing. Gdula keeps a carefully organized binder of the events of that day and its aftermath, with photographs showing the cindered remains of one of her neighbors’ houses, a charred outline where a home used to be. “As a child, I had a recurring nightmare that the woods behind my house were on fire,” Gdula said. “And that morning, my childhood nightmare became a reality.” Now, she’s worried about the Shell plant. 

In March, Shell reported a 2,500-gallon spill of sulfuric acid to the federal government’s National Response Center, according to a local report and the response center’s database. Although the spill was contained at the site, Gdula is concerned about the potential for spills like it to contaminate her water supply in the future. “It’s a big concern for me,” she said.

Shell did not return telephone or electronic message requests for comment on the spill or its plans to protect the public and the environment from water or air pollution.

I asked Gdula if she had ever considered moving. Her parents built her house in 1957, and it’s where she grew up. Ivy Lane is a charming, welcoming neighborhood. Gdula’s gardens are bursting with daffodils, her back porch laden with bird feeders, swinging in the breeze. 

“Believe it or not,” she said, in recent months “there have been bidding wars for the houses in this neighborhood.” But none of this is why she hasn’t left. “My neighbor who now lives closest to the pipelines went out looking for a new house, and she found one she loved,” Gdula said. “She walked outside and she looked around and she realized that Revolution was there too.” 

At least, Gdula concluded, the pipelines in her neighborhood were 300 or 350 feet away from her home, rather than 30. “There’s no guarantees when you move,” she said. Even if she bought a house with no pipelines in sight, there was nothing to stop another company from seizing and building on nearby land. The Shell plant alone requires 97 miles of pipeline and 1,000 fracking wells to feed it. 

Next to arrive was Baumgardner, soft spoken and wearing metallic pink glasses, which glinted in the sun. Baumgardner works for the Clean Air Council as the Beaver County Outreach Coordinator. Baumgardner has worked with Clean Air Council since 2016, but she first became involved with environmental issues through Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, the same organization that Schmetzer is part of. The community has its own citizen watchdog group devoted to monitoring the cracker plant, “Eyes on Shell.” 

Clifford Lau joined us later, sporting a thick gray mustache and the air of someone who is used to delivering educational lectures about complicated topics. Lau teaches chemistry and environmental science and is an adjunct professor at Duquesne University. He is full of detailed knowledge about the Shell plant and strategies for monitoring the plant’s effects on the air and water. He told me that he hasn’t been to the Rachel Carson house, but he does talk to his students about Carson. “A lot of them don’t know about ‘Silent Spring,’” he said.

The Shell plant can be seen from an overlook adjacent to the Cancer Institute parking lot, and we peered over the edge. Blackened, broken trees on the nearest hillside looked like snapped matchsticks. Below this ridge, the plant sprawled like a space-age city, all shiny turrets and blinking lights and fleets of silver railcars, extending to the shores of the blue-green Ohio. “I can see the glow in the sky from my house at night,” Gdula said. “The week that they lit their pilots, I heard the rumbling.”

Lau recalled attending a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection meeting about Shell’s Falcon pipeline in Washington County, which borders Allegheny and Beaver counties. The meeting was held at night at a junior high school on top of a hill. “It just struck me when I was out in the parking lot and I could see all the lights of the wells and the flares, and thinking, 10 years ago, that would have been perfectly dark, a nice starry night,” he said. “We’re actually having a chemical plant built around us.”

A historical marker on the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania, on May 9, 2022. Credit: Katie Surma

Baumgardner pointed out the town of Beaver, about two miles north of the plant on the other side of the river. “It’s a really nice town. I lived there for 14 years, and it got nicer every year until this thing came,” she said. She indicated a residential area of Beaver called River Road. “I’m surprised those people have not put up more of an outcry.”

“I know someone who lives down there,” Gdula said. “I asked her if there was concern. She said, no, she thinks they live far enough away.”

“What we have a fear of here,” Lau said, “is the fact that unlike in Louisiana and Texas and Oklahoma, where it’s very flat, here, they’re right down in the valley.” Like Springdale, Beaver was built into the sloping valley formed by the movement of the river long ago. The land around the Ohio River is like a giant, populated funnel.

“None of their stacks are really above the ridgelines, so if things are going to come down, the valley’s going to act like a big pipe,” Lau went on. “Depending on which way the wind is going, either it’s going to go that way toward Beaver. Or if the wind’s coming from the opposite direction,” he gestured to the west, and the wind picked up. “It’s gonna go that way toward Ohio and Steubenville.”

Was worry about the Shell plant’s pollution a frequent topic of conversation among people who live near Monaca, especially as the plant nears operation? “Not at all,” Gdula said. “I have to bring it up and then usually their eyes roll back in their head.”

“The response I get is that they haven’t had time to look into it,” Lau said. “And I’m trying to say, well, what’s a better time to look into it?” 

“Beaver County has had a lot of manufacturing with chemicals and smells,” Gdula said. “It’s almost like it’s part of the DNA of Beaver County: ‘My father worked in the mill; my grandfather worked in the mill, and yeah, their life got cut short,’ but you know,” she paused. “It’s accepted.”

What Would Rachel Carson Think?

The next morning I woke up at 6:30 a.m. to join a group of hikers who were training for the Rachel Carson Challenge, an all-day endurance event that is held annually in June on the 45-mile trail that shares Carson’s name. We would begin in Emmerling Park and end almost nine miles away in Springdale, passing by Carson’s homestead.  

We followed yellow blazes through the flat gravel paths of Emmerling Park up to the first hill, finding our footing among roots and stones that lined the switchbacks. The route alternated between narrow, wooded trails, where the only noises were the birds overhead and the sound of creek water rushing over rocks, and quiet neighborhoods, where we walked on the shoulder of the road, through tunnels and past construction sites. In between there were steep, muddy inclines, cut like ski runs through the bare trees. My boots slipped in the dirt, and I was jealous of the hikers who had thought to bring hiking poles. When we started, the morning was chilly enough that goosebumps stood on my arms, and I noticed the sparkle of dew on the grass. We climbed hill after hill with the sun hot on our necks, and I was soon warm enough to stow away my sweatshirt. At mile seven, I bent down to submerge both of my hands in the cold water of a stream that crossed the trail. 

As I hiked, I was struck by the beauty of the landscape: the undulating hills, the gaps in the trees where I could see the valley unfold all around us, the violets and dandelions growing at the edges of the path, wind chimes pealing in the distance. But I also noticed signs of something surprising: industry. About an hour in, I saw the first marker for a natural gas pipeline, a white post that was stuck like a milestone in an open field. “Warning,” it read, with a number listed for emergencies. Soon after, I spotted another one, poking out of the ground near a traffic cone. Others, bright yellow, sprouted along the route as we walked. We passed locked metal fences with the same red Eastern Gas Transmission and Storage logo as the pipeline markers and a vast, glittering coal ash pile, where part of the path turned black and silky beneath our feet. Rainwater pooled in thick tire tracks in the mud. (A few hundred feet from one section of trail, there is a fracking well built by Range Resources, which has paid to help sponsor the Challenge in the past.)

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In ‘Silent Spring,’ Rachel Carson described a fictional, bucolic hamlet, much like her hometown. Now, there’s a plastics plant under construction 30 miles away

SPRINGDALE, Pa.—If you stand in the sloping yard of the Rachel Carson Homestead and look southwest, down toward the Allegheny River, you can see the towers of the Cheswick Generating Station. Through the bare trees and thick green bramble that surround the house, the smokestacks emerge in the distance, twin pillars striped against a steel-silver sky. One is banded in orange and white, like a lighthouse; the other is dun-colored concrete. On this day in early spring, when birds are trilling and the smell of damp mulch fills the air, both towers are silent, because the plant was recently shut down.

When Rachel Carson was born here in 1907, this five-room white clapboard house about 18 miles east of Pittsburgh sat on 64 acres of farmland on the edge of town. The property included an apple and pear orchard, barn, and chicken coop. As a child, Carson explored the land around her home with enthusiasm. In one of her earliest essays, she writes about the trails “carpeted in fragrant pine needles” and the “thrill of exultation” she felt when she was outside on her own. Then, too, industry existed alongside the natural world; Carson would later recall the stench from the glue factory next to Springdale’s train station. When she was a teenager, West Penn Power built a coal power plant in Springdale. In her biography of Carson, Linda Lear writes about Carson’s adult distaste for what her hometown eventually became, “endlessly ugly” and “squeezed” between two “huge power stations.” 

In the famous opening of “Silent Spring,” Carson describes a fictional, bucolic hamlet, a literary echo of the Springdale she knew as a girl. She evokes a place that is still familiar to anyone who has spent time in Pennsylvanian woods. “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” she writes. “The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.” She writes about the vivid maples and striking birches, the nodding ferns and wildflowers, the deer and foxes and abundant fish who swim in clear, cold creeks, “the mists of the fall mornings.” Most of all, she writes about birds: the robins, wrens and doves whose voices come together in a “dawn chorus.”

Now the Carson homestead seems out of place on Marion Avenue, a relic from a bygone era. Tidy beds of tulips have replaced the wildflowers, and brick single-story houses and asphalt crowd in on all sides. The sounds of traffic and barking dogs and chatting neighbors cut through the birdsong, and the yard backs into Springdale High School’s parking lot. Springdale’s town website is proudly emblazoned with the slogan “The Power City,” while also offering information about Rachel Carson’s birthplace. Springdale is part of Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 17th Congressional district, one of 26 races that the Cook Political Report considers a toss-up for 2022. The issues of the environment, energy and jobs are front and center in the May 17 primary election election.

The Generating Station was permanently closed earlier this month after 50 years of operation. It was the last coal-fired power plant in the county and one of the last in Pennsylvania, and 50 people lost their jobs in the closure. The planned demolition of the plant stirred concern in some residents, who worried about the economic impact on businesses in their small community. GenOn Holdings, the plant’s owner, was also a source of financial support for Springdale in the form of donations to churches, parks, emergency management services, and projects like GenOn field, a baseball diamond built in 2012 for which the company donated more than $17,000.

Some residents were relieved to escape the plant’s pollutants (it was one of the largest sources of air pollution in the area) and eager to see the site converted into something else. In 2012, two Springdale residents filed a class-action lawsuit against GenOn, alleging that emissions from the station were damaging their property and making them “prisoners in their homes,” subject to “fly ash, barium compounds, copper compounds, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, hydrochloric acid,” and other harmful chemicals. One of the plaintiffs complained about “black particulates and sulfur odors” that she believed were causing her children to get headaches. The residents ultimately won the right to sue the plant, and that decision has been called “a guide for future plaintiffs” pursuing cases about local pollution.

Flowers grow in the yard of the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania, May 9, 2022. Credit: Katie Surma

Sometimes these opposing viewpoints are embodied in one person at the same time. “Me, personally, I think it’s good they’re shutting down,” a local worker told Trib Live in 2021, when the closure was announced. “I think that it’s going to be kind of good for the environment.” But he was also worried about the disappearance of the steady stream of customers patronizing Springdale’s bars, restaurants, and the beer distributor where he worked, Beer & Beyond.

This is an old story in Southwest Pennsylvania, a well-worn narrative about the hard choices to be made between opportunity and public health, prosperity and preservation, stability and safety. For nearly as long as there has been European settlement, people here have benefited from—and been subject to the dangers unleashed by—the fuels beneath their feet. In the past, it’s been a story about the cost of survival and what must be endured in order to get by, whether that meant “killer smog,” lung disease, or industrial accidents like the Harwick mine disaster of 1904, which killed 181 people in Cheswick, the town neighboring Springdale. Today, this familiar fight has taken on heightened urgency. Depending on who is telling the story, that urgency has been brought on by the climate crisis and the harmful effects of the fracking boom. Or it’s tied to gas prices, unemployment, and foreign oil.

Politicians, like the candidates running in the 17th Congressional district, try to have it both ways when it comes to jobs and the environment. The Democrats speak about the urgency of responding to climate change and tend to emphasize the jobs that could be created in that response, and Republicans promote oil and gas investment and fracking as engines of economic growth. Candidates from both parties say they want to protect residents from pollution. But few people think that it might be possible to craft an entirely new story about this part of the country, a story that doesn’t revolve around fossil fuels.

The Cheswick Generating Station and smokestacks located mere blocks from the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania on May 9, 2022. Credit: Katie Surma

Bob Schmetzer, a member of a local grassroots environmental group, the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, who has lived in the area all his life, explained the trade-offs as people perceive them by harkening back to the old days when so many depended on the steel mills for their livelihoods and grandmothers swept soot off their porches every night. The thinking went like this, he said: “As long as there is dirt to sweep, we’ll have food to eat.” 

“There’s a feeling of ‘we trade our health for jobs’ here,’” said Terrie Baumgardner, who works for the Clean Air Council in the region. “That’s what we do.”

A Plastics Plant 30 miles from Springdale

There is a story from Rachel Carson’s childhood about what first triggered her lifelong love for the ocean, the subject of so much of her writing. She grew up far from the sea, but townspeople in Springdale later remembered that she once found a “large fossilized shell in the rocky outcroppings of her family’s hillside property,” Lear writes, of a little girl gazing down on something left behind by an ancient ocean, captured in her palm. “She wondered where it had come from…and what had happened to the sea that had nurtured it so long ago.” Three hundred and ninety million years ago, western Pennsylvania was covered by an inland sea. Detritus from that sea eventually formed the Marcellus Shale, the vast deposit that is the source of the natural gas coveted by petroleum companies in the 21st century.

About 30 miles from Springdale, along the Ohio River in Beaver County in the town of Monaca, an ethane cracker plant being built by Royal Dutch Shell is the latest and largest development to take advantage of the natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale. “Cracker” is shorthand for the process used to break down the gas molecules into smaller molecules. It is slated to open sometime in 2022. During the construction, which began in 2017, parking lots for the struggling Beaver Valley Mall filled with buses for workers and cars with out of state license plates. 

The plant will use ethane to make 1.6 million tons a year of tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles,” which are “feedstock” that can be made into a range of plastic products. It is permitted to emit 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.

Each year, around 230,000 tons of nurdles find their way into Carson’s beloved oceans, where they are consumed by fish and wildlife; they are the ocean’s second-largest source of micropollutants. 

The plant “marks a major expansion of the natural gas industry into downstream supply chain production,” according to “When Fracking Comes to Town,” an academic anthology about natural gas extraction in America. It is the “first facility of its kind” in the Marcellus Shale, the “first investment by Royal Dutch Shell outside of the Gulf Coast area in 20 years,” and its construction was made possible by $1.7 billion in tax credits from the state. 

The cracker plant was built on the same site as a zinc smelting facility that was shut down in 2014, taking with it 600 jobs and thousands of dollars in local tax revenue. Though Shell  employed 6,000 workers during the construction phase, in normal operations, the company  expects to employ 600 people.

Rachel Carson’s Legacy

On an unusually hot spring day, I met with a group of people concerned about the Shell plant’s environmental and health impacts at the Allegheny Health Network’s Cancer Institute in Beaver County, a gleaming new building behind the mall and across from Rural King, a farm supply store. Warmth radiates through the soles of my shoes from the baking pavement; there is hardly any shade here, only a few spindly, immature trees. Where Rachel Carson was focused on the effects of pesticides used in agriculture, today many environmentalists in Pennsylvania are most worried about the powerful oil and gas industry and its encroachment on residential areas and public parks.

Karen Gdula arrived first, petite and friendly, though focused and matter-of-fact when she’s describing her experiences with the natural gas industry. In September 2018, Energy Transfer’s Revolution pipeline exploded behind her house on Ivy Lane, only a few miles away from where we were standing. Gdula keeps a carefully organized binder of the events of that day and its aftermath, with photographs showing the cindered remains of one of her neighbors’ houses, a charred outline where a home used to be. “As a child, I had a recurring nightmare that the woods behind my house were on fire,” Gdula said. “And that morning, my childhood nightmare became a reality.” Now, she’s worried about the Shell plant. 

In March, Shell reported a 2,500-gallon spill of sulfuric acid to the federal government’s National Response Center, according to a local report and the response center’s database. Although the spill was contained at the site, Gdula is concerned about the potential for spills like it to contaminate her water supply in the future. “It’s a big concern for me,” she said.

Shell did not return telephone or electronic message requests for comment on the spill or its plans to protect the public and the environment from water or air pollution.

I asked Gdula if she had ever considered moving. Her parents built her house in 1957, and it’s where she grew up. Ivy Lane is a charming, welcoming neighborhood. Gdula’s gardens are bursting with daffodils, her back porch laden with bird feeders, swinging in the breeze. 

“Believe it or not,” she said, in recent months “there have been bidding wars for the houses in this neighborhood.” But none of this is why she hasn’t left. “My neighbor who now lives closest to the pipelines went out looking for a new house, and she found one she loved,” Gdula said. “She walked outside and she looked around and she realized that Revolution was there too.” 

At least, Gdula concluded, the pipelines in her neighborhood were 300 or 350 feet away from her home, rather than 30. “There’s no guarantees when you move,” she said. Even if she bought a house with no pipelines in sight, there was nothing to stop another company from seizing and building on nearby land. The Shell plant alone requires 97 miles of pipeline and 1,000 fracking wells to feed it. 

Next to arrive was Baumgardner, soft spoken and wearing metallic pink glasses, which glinted in the sun. Baumgardner works for the Clean Air Council as the Beaver County Outreach Coordinator. Baumgardner has worked with Clean Air Council since 2016, but she first became involved with environmental issues through Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, the same organization that Schmetzer is part of. The community has its own citizen watchdog group devoted to monitoring the cracker plant, “Eyes on Shell.” 

Clifford Lau joined us later, sporting a thick gray mustache and the air of someone who is used to delivering educational lectures about complicated topics. Lau teaches chemistry and environmental science and is an adjunct professor at Duquesne University. He is full of detailed knowledge about the Shell plant and strategies for monitoring the plant’s effects on the air and water. He told me that he hasn’t been to the Rachel Carson house, but he does talk to his students about Carson. “A lot of them don’t know about ‘Silent Spring,’” he said.

The Shell plant can be seen from an overlook adjacent to the Cancer Institute parking lot, and we peered over the edge. Blackened, broken trees on the nearest hillside looked like snapped matchsticks. Below this ridge, the plant sprawled like a space-age city, all shiny turrets and blinking lights and fleets of silver railcars, extending to the shores of the blue-green Ohio. “I can see the glow in the sky from my house at night,” Gdula said. “The week that they lit their pilots, I heard the rumbling.”

Lau recalled attending a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection meeting about Shell’s Falcon pipeline in Washington County, which borders Allegheny and Beaver counties. The meeting was held at night at a junior high school on top of a hill. “It just struck me when I was out in the parking lot and I could see all the lights of the wells and the flares, and thinking, 10 years ago, that would have been perfectly dark, a nice starry night,” he said. “We’re actually having a chemical plant built around us.”

A historical marker on the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania, on May 9, 2022. Credit: Katie Surma

Baumgardner pointed out the town of Beaver, about two miles north of the plant on the other side of the river. “It’s a really nice town. I lived there for 14 years, and it got nicer every year until this thing came,” she said. She indicated a residential area of Beaver called River Road. “I’m surprised those people have not put up more of an outcry.”

“I know someone who lives down there,” Gdula said. “I asked her if there was concern. She said, no, she thinks they live far enough away.”

“What we have a fear of here,” Lau said, “is the fact that unlike in Louisiana and Texas and Oklahoma, where it’s very flat, here, they’re right down in the valley.” Like Springdale, Beaver was built into the sloping valley formed by the movement of the river long ago. The land around the Ohio River is like a giant, populated funnel.

“None of their stacks are really above the ridgelines, so if things are going to come down, the valley’s going to act like a big pipe,” Lau went on. “Depending on which way the wind is going, either it’s going to go that way toward Beaver. Or if the wind’s coming from the opposite direction,” he gestured to the west, and the wind picked up. “It’s gonna go that way toward Ohio and Steubenville.”

Was worry about the Shell plant’s pollution a frequent topic of conversation among people who live near Monaca, especially as the plant nears operation? “Not at all,” Gdula said. “I have to bring it up and then usually their eyes roll back in their head.”

“The response I get is that they haven’t had time to look into it,” Lau said. “And I’m trying to say, well, what’s a better time to look into it?” 

“Beaver County has had a lot of manufacturing with chemicals and smells,” Gdula said. “It’s almost like it’s part of the DNA of Beaver County: ‘My father worked in the mill; my grandfather worked in the mill, and yeah, their life got cut short,’ but you know,” she paused. “It’s accepted.”

What Would Rachel Carson Think?

The next morning I woke up at 6:30 a.m. to join a group of hikers who were training for the Rachel Carson Challenge, an all-day endurance event that is held annually in June on the 45-mile trail that shares Carson’s name. We would begin in Emmerling Park and end almost nine miles away in Springdale, passing by Carson’s homestead.  

We followed yellow blazes through the flat gravel paths of Emmerling Park up to the first hill, finding our footing among roots and stones that lined the switchbacks. The route alternated between narrow, wooded trails, where the only noises were the birds overhead and the sound of creek water rushing over rocks, and quiet neighborhoods, where we walked on the shoulder of the road, through tunnels and past construction sites. In between there were steep, muddy inclines, cut like ski runs through the bare trees. My boots slipped in the dirt, and I was jealous of the hikers who had thought to bring hiking poles. When we started, the morning was chilly enough that goosebumps stood on my arms, and I noticed the sparkle of dew on the grass. We climbed hill after hill with the sun hot on our necks, and I was soon warm enough to stow away my sweatshirt. At mile seven, I bent down to submerge both of my hands in the cold water of a stream that crossed the trail. 

As I hiked, I was struck by the beauty of the landscape: the undulating hills, the gaps in the trees where I could see the valley unfold all around us, the violets and dandelions growing at the edges of the path, wind chimes pealing in the distance. But I also noticed signs of something surprising: industry. About an hour in, I saw the first marker for a natural gas pipeline, a white post that was stuck like a milestone in an open field. “Warning,” it read, with a number listed for emergencies. Soon after, I spotted another one, poking out of the ground near a traffic cone. Others, bright yellow, sprouted along the route as we walked. We passed locked metal fences with the same red Eastern Gas Transmission and Storage logo as the pipeline markers and a vast, glittering coal ash pile, where part of the path turned black and silky beneath our feet. Rainwater pooled in thick tire tracks in the mud. (A few hundred feet from one section of trail, there is a fracking well built by Range Resources, which has paid to help sponsor the Challenge in the past.)

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