The life stories of enslaved people are crucial to a legal battle over a Louisiana petrochemical facility that could triple residents’ exposure to carcinogensby
On the Western bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt, men, and women are busy cleaning the river. They are part of the veryNile initiative. A project launched in 2018 to gather plastic garbage and raise awareness of the importance of protecting the environment.
The team also develops means to recycle and upcycle solid waste through partnerships with local stakeholders. The huge structure weighing more than 7,500 kg was erected by volunteers using plastic garbage.
“We chose to build a pyramid as a huge Egyptian symbol, Farah Abd Elbakey explains. We built a pyramid made of plastic collected from the Nile to show people the scale of the problem. In order to build a pyramid, we started collecting plastic a while ago.”
The volunteer reveals that no collection of plastic was made for a “long time”; the more than “100,000 kg” of plastic collected since the beginning of VeryNile are testimony to the work accomplished.
“We spent 3 years cleaning the Nile, buying plastic from the fishermen who collect it, the plastic more than the fish, says volunteer Hanaa Farouk. Plastic can stay in the Nile for hundreds of years without breaking down.”
Disrupting fishing businessThe 250,000 bottles that made up the pyramid represent “45 days work, done by 6 fishermen”. They will be recycled into yarns for the textile industry. According to a study mentioned by the World Economic forum, around 88-95% of all river-borne plastic comes from just 10 rivers, among which are Niger and the Nile. One of the consequences of pollution is the of fishermen:
“The amount of fish is not as big as it used to be, volunteer Zeid Ehad says. Fishermen are involved in cleaning the Nile to get extra income, and recently we have extracted tons of plastic from the Nile which affects our lives, the environment, and everything else.”
Plastic collected by fishermen is also turned into products such as bags. An up-cycling workshop led by women from the Qursayah Island on the Nile enables them to secure funds.
VeryNile is supported by: Drosos Foundation, One Earth One Ocean organization, and the Egyptian Ministry of Environment. The country will host the next UN World Climate Conference (COP 27) in November.
The company, an affiliate of Formosa Plastics, said it intended to move forward with the $9.4 billion complex in St. James Parish despite the ruling.Louisiana activists battling to block an enormous plastics plant in a corridor so dense with industrial refineries it is known as Cancer Alley won a legal victory this week when a judge canceled the company’s air permits.In a sharply worded opinion released Wednesday, Judge Trudy White of Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge noted that the residents in the tiny town of Welcome, where the $9.4 billion petrochemical plant would have been built, are descendants of enslaved Africans.“The blood, sweat and tears of their ancestors is tied to the land,” Judge White wrote. “Their ancestors worked the land with the hope and dream of passing down productive agricultural untainted land along the Mississippi to their families.”She said that when Louisiana state regulators granted 14 permits to FG LA L.L.C., an affiliate of the Taiwan-based giant Formosa Plastics, they had used “selective” and “inconsistent” data and had failed to consider the pollution effects on the predominantly Black community.Understand the Latest News on Climate ChangeCard 1 of 4Relinquishing a fortune.
US court revokes permits for plastics plant in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ Formosa’s planned petrochemicals complex would have doubled toxic emissions in area with some of the worst air quality in the US A US court has revoked air pollution permits for a huge plastics plant in a region of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley and …
NGO retracts ‘waste colonialism’ report blaming Asian countries for plastic pollution Ocean Conservancy apologises for ‘false narrative’ of 2015 study that put blame for bulk of world’s plastic waste on five Asian states An environmental watchdog has retracted an influential report that blamed five Asian countries for the majority of plastic pollution in the ocean. …
During the summer of 2018, two of the largest cranes in the world towered over the Ohio River. The bright-red monoliths were brought in by the multi-national oil and gas company Shell to build an approximately 800-acre petrochemical complex in Potter Township, Pennsylvania—a community of about 500 people. In the months that followed, the construction project would require remediating a brownfield, rerouting a highway, and constructing an office building, a laboratory, a fracked-gas power plant, and a rail system for more than 3,000 freight cars.
The purpose of Shell’s massive complex wasn’t simply to refine gas. It was to make plastic.
Five years after construction began at the site, Shell’s complex, which is one of the biggest state-of-the-art ethane cracker plants in the world, is set to open. An important component of gas and a byproduct of oil refinery operations, ethane is an odorless hydrocarbon that, when heated to an extremely high temperature to “crack” its molecules apart, produces ethylene; three reactors combine ethylene with catalysts to create polyethylene; and a 2,204-ton, 285-foot-tall “quench tower” cools down the cracked gas and removes pollutants. That final product is then turned into virgin plastic pellets. Estimates suggest that a plant the size of the Potter Township petrochemical complex would use ethane from as many as 1,000 fracking wells.
Shell ranks in the top 10 among the 90 companies that are responsible for two-thirds of historic greenhouse gas emissions. Its Potter Township cracker plant is expected to emit up to 2.25 million tons of climate-warming gases annually, equivalent to approximately 430,000 extra cars on the road. It will also emit 159 tons of particulate matter pollution, 522 tons of volatile organic compounds, and more than 40 tons of other hazardous air pollutants. Exposure to these emissions is linked to brain, liver, and kidney issues; cardiovascular and respiratory disease; miscarriages and birth defects; and childhood leukemia and cancer. Some residents fear that the plant could turn the region into a sacrifice zone: a new “Cancer Alley” in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
“You have to drill the wells to support the petrochemical plant, but you also have to build the petrochemical plant in order to keep drilling the wells. It’s like a Ponzi scheme for natural gas.” – Rebecca Scott.[embedded content]“I’m worried about what this means for our air, which is already very polluted, and for our drinking water,” said Terrie Baumgardner, a retired English professor and a member of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, the main local advocacy group that fought the plant. Baumgardner, who is also an outreach coordinator at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group Clean Air Council, lives near the ethane cracker. In addition to sharing an airshed with the plant, she is one of the approximately 5 million people whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River watershed. When Shell initially proposed the petrochemical plant in 2012, she and other community advocates tried their best to stop it.And the plant’s negative impact will go far beyond Pennsylvania. Shell’s ethane cracker relies on a dense network of fracking wells, pipelines, and storage hubs. It’s one of the first US ethane crackers to be built outside the Gulf of Mexico, and one of five such facilities proposed throughout Appalachia’s Ohio River Valley, which stretches through parts of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. If the project is profitable, more like it will follow—dramatically expanding the global market for fossil fuels at a time when the planet is approaching the tipping point of the climate crisis.For the residents who live nearby, Shell’s big bet on plastic represents a new chapter in the same story that’s plagued the region for decades: An extractive industry moves in, exports natural resources at a tremendous profit—most of which flow to outsiders—and leaves poverty, pollution, and illness in its wake. First came the loggers, oil barons, and coal tycoons. Then there were the steel magnates and the fracking moguls.Now it’s the titans of plastic.Jeff Bryant and his daughter, Cheyenne, live in Marianna, one of the most heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania. Cheyenne tested positive for biomarkers of exposure to toxic chemicals. Photos by Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra MagazineScenes from Aliquippa, a town six miles south of the Shell plant that’s likely to be affected by its pollution.
Shell’s petrochemical complex produces poly-ethylene nurdles. They are pellets, about the size of a lentil, which are used to make many consumer products, including the single-use plastic packaging and bags that contribute to the
global plastic crisis. Microplastics contain a mix of harmful chemicals and have been found in virtually every corner of Earth’s water and soil and in animals throughout the food web, including human bodies. Nurdles are what’s known as “primary microplastics”: plastics that were tiny to begin with, not broken down from larger pieces. An estimated 230,000 tons of nurdles wind up in oceans every year. They resemble tiny eggs, so fish are prone to eating them.
Shell has promised that its Pennsylvania plant won’t release nurdles into local waterways. “Polyethylene powder and pellets are not allowed to make their way into local waterways under any circumstances,” a Shell spokesperson said in an email, pointing to the company’s enrollment in
a program sponsored by the American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association that aims to help plastics manufacturers achieve “zero plastic resin loss.”
That program has been around for more than 25 years, but as of 2016, nurdles were still the second-largest source of ocean micropollutants (after tire dust). Nurdles are easily lost or swept away by the wind during transport via trucks, barges, and trains. Shipping accidents have led to vast spills. Unlike oil, nurdles aren’t classified as a hazardous material, so most states don’t regulate them, and federal agencies aren’t obligated to clean up spills.
Many nearby residents, however, remain unconvinced by Shell’s officious assurances. “Sooner or later, they’re gonna have a big spill of those nurdles,” said Bob Schmetzer, who cofounded the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community. “It’s a matter of time . . . There are nurdles in the water anywhere those plants are.”
As the world increasingly turns toward renewable energy and strives to decarbonize, fossil fuel giants like Shell are trying to advance a new plastics boom to keep their ventures afloat—and it’s working. Plastics manufacturing is estimated to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand by 2030 and nearly half by 2050—ahead of trucks, aviation, and shipping, according to the International Energy Agency.
Shell’s Pennsylvania plant relies on ethane from fracking wells, a sector that has recently benefited from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Prior to the war, the industry suffered from an oversupply of gas and consistently low prices, which created negative cash flows and large amounts of debt. More than 600 fracking companies and related industries in North America
filed for bankruptcy between 2015 and 2022. As of 2019, Shell was one of the largest fracking leaseholders and producers over a nine-county area in the Appalachia Basin, primarily in Pennsylvania, operating more than 300 wells. The cracker plant will create additional demand from existing wells and is expected to prompt the drilling of new ones, all at a time when the war in Ukraine has caused a huge spike in gas prices and a windfall for companies like Shell.
It takes millions of gallons of water to frack for gas, which are typically withdrawn from local waterways or aquifers. The wastewater that comes back up to the surface contains radioactive elements and heavy metals, and it isn’t always disposed of safely. Chemicals known to be dangerous to the environment and human health, such as PFAS, are also used in the process.
The plastics and fracking industries, and all the pipelines and infrastructure associated with them, are major drivers of climate change. Recent studies show that methane emissions from fracking have been
drastically undercounted because these analyses don’t account for leaks. Methane is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at driving global warming in the short term. In 2019, global atmospheric methane reached a 20-year high, with some researchers pointing to the US fracking boom as the culprit.
“The cracker is really only here because of local natural gas and subsidies offered to Shell. Of course it’s beneficial for the folks who get those jobs, but we shouldn’t just look at a small set of local outcomes when considering these things.” – Nick Muller.Between direct emissions and methane leaks from the fracking industry, the US plastics industry emits greenhouse gases at the same rate as 116 coal-fired power plants, according to a report from the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. The same report says that if the global plastics industry were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter.
“Even this one facility is not just one facility,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based collaborative of more than 50 regional and national environmental advocacy groups, said of Shell’s Potter Township project. “The ethane cracker itself is well down the production chain. It starts with fracking wells, then there are gathering lines, pipelines, and compressor stations, among other facilities. And after the cracker plant, there are downstream manufacturing processes to turn these plastic pellets into products. Every single part of that chain poses risks.”
“You have to drill the wells to support the petrochemical plant, but you also have to build the petrochemical plant in order to keep drilling the wells,” said Rebecca Scott, associate professor of environmental sociology at the University of Missouri. “It’s like a Ponzi scheme for natural gas.”
The Beaver county Marcellus Awareness Community spent years fighting an influx of fracking wells long before Shell proposed to build an ethane cracker plant nearby. Once it learned about the proposal, the community group then pivoted from opposing wells to trying to stop the ethane cracker. During the course of a seven-year campaign, it formed partnerships with local and national environmental and health advocacy groups, including the Breathe Project and its members, such as the Clean Air Council, and with researchers at local universities and water protectors from Native American tribes throughout the watershed. Together, they launched a comprehensive grassroots campaign against the cracker: They canvassed, filed petitions, appealed permit approvals, spoke at public hearings, and held protests.
The Clean Air Council’s efforts secured some concessions from Shell, including improved traffic mitigation, additional restrictions on noise and light during construction, fence-line air monitoring, and improved pollution controls during flaring (burning off excess natural gas). But in the end, they couldn’t stop the plant. “None of it did any good,” Baumgardner said. “In the last year, we’ve changed our organizing strategy. Now we’re doing air monitoring, noise monitoring, light monitoring, and getting ready to watch the water for plastic nurdles.”
The Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community group launched Eyes on Shell, which provides resources like emergency planning information in case of an accident at the site; instructions on where to obtain air monitors; contact information for relevant regulatory agencies, nonprofits, and research groups; and detailed instructions on how to document and report any unusual happenings at the plant. Their vigilance proved valuable before the plant even opened. In September 2021, members of the group and other residents noticed a sickly-sweet maple-syrup-like smell emanating from the site and notified regulatory agencies. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued Shell violations for “malodorous air contaminants,” and Shell identified the smell as coming from chlorotolyltriazole, a compound that, according to the company, formed when they applied a corrosion inhibitor and bleach to cooling units at the plant. In March 2022, a piece of faulty equipment resulted in the spill of 2,500 gallons of sulfuric acid at the site. Again, residents and activists learned of the problem when a number of them received notifications from a national alert system that there had been a sulfuric acid spill in the area. Although the alert didn’t specify the origin of the spill, it didn’t take much research on the part of local activists to determine that it had occurred at the cracker plant. Shell later stated that the spill was entirely contained and that none made its way into nearby water or soil, and no violations were issued.
“The plant wasn’t even opened up yet, and they were already getting violations for not being able to contain these chemicals inside the fence line,” Schmetzer said. “It was scary.”
Living near fracking wells or related infrastructure has been linked to everything from preterm births and high-risk pregnancies to asthma, migraines, skin disorders, and anxiety. “For leukemia and lymphoma, the current understanding is that it could show up as soon as three to five years after exposure, and within less than 10 years for sure,” said Dr. Cheng-Kuan Lin, a physician and former researcher at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Solid tumors like lung cancer could take 10 or 20 years. And other cancer types could take more than 30 years to show up.”
Lin was the lead author on three studies examining literature on the cancer risk associated with living near petrochemical facilities. A study of leukemia found that people who live near petrochemical complexes are 36 percent more likely to develop cancer than those who don’t. The risk is higher for certain types of leukemia. People living near petrochemical facilities are about 85 percent more likely to develop chronic lymphocytic leukemia compared with people not living near these facilities. The studies also found that those who live near petrochemical complexes are almost 20 percent more likely to develop lung cancer.
Lin noted that pollutants from these types of facilities might vary from country to country, but they all emit benzene, a known risk factor for leukemia. Shell’s Pennsylvania plant will emit numerous cancer-causing chemicals including benzene and formaldehyde. He also pointed out that some of the studies followed people for only a short period of time, so they likely didn’t capture the whole picture. “In general, the longer you trace these populations, the more cancers you’ll find,” he said.
Families living among the Marcellus Shale fracking fields fear what the proliferation of wells will mean for their health. Jeff Bryant and his nine-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, live in Marianna, a tiny borough in Washington County that is located about 60 miles south of Shell’s new plant and is one of the most heavily fracked counties in the state. Only 450 people live there, and 21.6 percent of them live in poverty (a rate that’s substantially higher than the national poverty rate of 11.4 percent). When drilling began in 2018 at dozens of new fracking wells surrounding the town, Cheyenne, who was five at the time, developed headaches, respiratory problems, and nosebleeds. “She’d wake up in the morning with her nose bleeding, then just bleed and bleed,” Bryant said.
The headaches were alarming too. Cheyenne would hold her head and cry, saying, “My head is stabbing.”
In 2019, Environmental Health News tested the air, water, and urine of Pennsylvania families who lived near fracking wells for contaminants. The investigation found biomarkers for harmful chemicals in the bodies of children living near fracking wells at levels up to 90 times higher than the national average. Cheyenne’s urine sample showed biomarkers indicating exposure to toluene, ethylbenzene, styrene, benzene, and other chemicals used in fracking, which are linked to respiratory, kidney, liver, circulatory, and nervous system problems; skin irritation; and increased cancer risk.
“She’s been poisoned,” Bryant said. “All she does is run around outside with her friends—there’s no reason these things should be in her body.”
Some studies have found that emissions from fracking wells tend to be highest during the drilling phase. Cheyenne’s health problems got better once drilling had been completed. But Bryant worries more wells are coming, and the family can’t afford to move.
Dwan B. Walker, the mayor of Aliquippa, feels that Shell didn’t consider the opinions of his constituents.Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra MagazineResidents of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, are about 35 miles away from Potter Township, but they could be just as impacted by Shell’s cracker plant. Home to massive industrial polluters like US Steel and PPG Industries, the county had air that was among the dirtiest in the nation before Shell’s ethane cracker arrived. Yet even though air and water pollution don’t respect geographical borders, residents outside Potter Township were given little say about the plant. Julie DiCenzo, a retired medical writer, joined the citizens group Communities First–Sewickley Valley because of her concerns about both the cracker plant and the fracking wells that had received permits less than a mile from her home. She started attending town meetings in neighboring Economy Borough, where some fracking wells had already received permits and the shale gas drilling company had plans for more, but as a nonresident, she wasn’t permitted to speak. “Even though it’s in another county, it’s still affecting us,” DiCenzo said. In addition to holding public educational meetings to raise awareness about the risks from the ethane cracker and fracking, members of Communities First–Sewickley Valley worked to persuade several of the 11 municipalities in the local school district to implement zoning ordinances that would keep oil and gas development as far away from residents as possible, with mixed success. This lack of political power for residents was evident in the permitting process for the Shell ethane cracker too. Residents of the counties surrounding the site regularly packed Potter Township’s community meetings about the plant, but some felt that their opinions didn’t count because they weren’t residents of the township itself.The plastics plant has also raised concerns about environmental justice. Beaver County is 91 percent white, with a median household income of $59,000 a year and 9 percent of the people living below the poverty line. But within 15 miles of Shell’s plant, there are at least eight communities where residents are more than 30 percent non-white or more than 20 percent of people live in poverty. In Aliquippa, about six miles south of the plant, around 41 percent of the town’s approximately 9,200 residents are non-white and a third are Black. The median annual income is $36,451, and a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. When the plant was proposed, the promises to nearby residents were big: a 25-year operating contract, other new businesses in the region, and up to 20,000 direct and indirect jobs. But some Aliquippa residents say those promises remain unfulfilled. “The city hasn’t seen much benefit from the plant so far,” said Dwan B. Walker, who has served as Aliquippa’s mayor for 11 years. Being mayor of Aliquippa is a labor of love—Walker makes just $175 a month doing the job and works for a security company to pay the bills. He decided to run for mayor after his sister was shot and killed in 2009 because he wanted to make his community safer. Walker, too, went to Shell’s public hearings about the plant but didn’t feel that his opinion or the opinions of his constituents mattered. He still hopes the plant might eventually create downstream manufacturing jobs for the residents of Aliquippa, but he also worries about his community’s and his own family’s health.In 2021, following President Joe Biden’s executive order on environmental justice, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf formally established the Environmental Justice Advisory Board and the Environmental Justice Interagency Council. As it stands, Pennsylvania’s current policy states that environmental justice communities (defined as including “historically and currently low-income communities and communities of color”) should get extra consideration to review permits for polluting facilities. Aliquippa’s proximity to the plant means its air will be significantly impacted by emissions, but the town didn’t get such special consideration during the permitting phase. Nor did any of the other environmental justice communities nearby.“It’s a weak policy,” said Joe Minott, the executive director and chief counsel for the Clean Air Council. Minott has criticized the DEP for declining to follow its existing environmental justice policies. “It contains very few specifics about how to actually achieve environmental justice, and it’s just a policy right now, not backed up by any regulations, so they’re not even obligated to follow it.”In 2014, Minott’s group created a detailed report on the expected impacts of the ethane cracker, including increased risk of cancer and respiratory and heart disease, increased traffic, and light and noise pollution. The organization also provided expert witnesses and legal counsel to the community, then took Shell to court. Shell eventually settled on both counts and agreed to provide better pollution controls during flaring and continuous fence-line air monitoring at the plant, accompanied by a public online dashboard where residents can review air-monitoring data.“They say ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ but a lot of legislators stop there in their critical thinking about the benefits of this kind of tax package.” – Sara InnamoratoWalker said residents of Aliquippa have also had concerns about fracking well proposals nearby. “The DEP didn’t hold any meetings with me or the city council to talk about environmental concerns,” he said. “We’d need to have a lot more conversations about that before we let it happen here. I don’t want to be in the grocery store hearing, ‘You let them do what?’ ”In an attempt to lure Shell to Pennsylvania, the state’s former Republican governor Tom Corbett approved legislation offering Shell an “unlimited tax credit” in 2012, one year after he slashed $1 billion in public education funding. It was one of the largest subsidy packages ever awarded to a company in the United States. Of the 183 state legislators who voted on the bill, just 62 voted against it.That windfall hasn’t translated into growth for Beaver County. A study by the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit progressive research organization, concluded that during construction of the plant, Beaver County actually fell behind both the state and the nation in nearly every measure of economic activity. The county’s population has continued to decline, all while registering “zero growth in employment, zero reduction in poverty, and zero growth in businesses—even when factoring in all the temporary construction workers at this site.”Other research promises that those benefits are still coming. A study commissioned by Shell and published by researchers at Robert Morris University in 2021 projected that once it opened, the ethane cracker would add nearly $4 billion a year to the state’s economy. In Beaver County alone, the report found, the complex would produce $260 million to $846 million in annual economic activity, including wages, benefits, and related spending. Environmental advocates called the report “propaganda” because it didn’t consider subsidies or externalized costs to health and the environment. The true costs and benefits remain to be seen.It’s difficult to quantify the public health costs of a facility like the ethane cracker, but modeling tools offer a rough idea. According to predictions from the EPA’s CO-Benefits Risk Assessment tool, the plant’s emissions of PM2.5—toxic airborne particulate much tinier than the width of a human hair—are estimated to cost Beaver County an additional $16 million a year in health-care costs. That’s not counting other pollutants like volatile organic compounds and hazardous chemicals. Neighboring Allegheny County can expect about $13 million in additional health-care costs. The national health-care burden is expected to increase by about $70 million a year from pollution that travels from Shell’s plant beyond the area. A DEP spokesperson said that estimating potential health-care costs associated with emissions for a proposed facility is not part of the state’s permitting process.Republican state senator Elder Vogel Jr., one of the sponsors of the $1.7 billion subsidy the state offered Shell, represents parts of Pennsylvania’s Beaver, Lawrence, and Butler Counties, including Potter Township, where the cracker plant is located. Despite the local opposition, he remains a firm supporter of the facility. “All across the world, people have heard about Beaver County now,” Vogel said. “This Shell plant is putting us on the map.”When asked whether state legislators considered the public health costs before offering Shell $1.7 billion in tax subsidies, Vogel said, “No, not really. I don’t believe so.”Nick Muller, a professor of economics, engineering, and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, coauthored a 2019 study on the environmental and employment impacts of the shale gas boom. It found that the adverse effects on public health almost exactly equaled the economic benefits, and the climate costs subtracted another $12 billion to $15 billion in value, putting the industry’s cumulative economic impact in the red. “The cracker is really only here because of local natural gas and subsidies offered to Shell,” Muller said. “Of course it’s beneficial for the folks who get those jobs, but we shouldn’t just look at a small set of local outcomes when considering these things.”When having an abundance of natural resources either doesn’t translate into sustainable wealth or leaves a region more impoverished than it started, sociologists refer to it as “the resource curse.”In Appalachia, examples of the resource curse abound, according to the University of Missouri’s Rebecca Scott. “Appalachia has been culturally marginalized by narratives of backwardness and welfare dependency, like the image of the hillbilly in popular culture,” Scott said. Those harmful stereotypes can make residents more eager to belong in ways that are seen as culturally important, like contributing to the production of energy or essential materials like steel and plastic. “It becomes not only about the community’s ability to have commodities but also its ability to belong, and for its members to have a sense of personal worth.”This context helps explain why for some Western Pennsylvanians, the Shell plant felt like a godsend. “The Shell construction project put everybody in the unionized construction industry in Beaver County, Allegheny County, and Butler County to work, and then, because of the magnitude of the job, they started pulling in people from farther away,” said Larry Nelson, president of the Beaver County Building and Construction Trades.Nelson’s organization, which is one of several local chapters of North America’s Building Trades Unions, represents about 20 local construction unions including plumbers, plasterers, painters, sheet metal workers, boilermakers, operating engineers, cement masons, and bricklayers. “Before that job started, just about all the trades had some form of unemployment,” Nelson said. “It helped the unions out greatly.”Union members receive the same pay and benefits as others in their same profession, regardless of the type of job they’re working on or which client they’re working for, Nelson said. But the Shell project stood out as being one of the safest job sites he’s ever seen. “Workers had something called ‘work stop authority,’ which gives any worker the ability to stand up and say, ‘Wait, something doesn’t look safe. Let’s pause and take another look,’ ” he said. Nelson believes the plant could be a continuing source of employment and that Shell will call on the unions for future projects at the plant as needed.Shell officials have made numerous efforts to demonstrate that the company makes a good neighbor. Shell gave $1 million to the Community College of Beaver County to develop a training program for petrochemical facility workers and has hired at least 13 graduates to fill permanent roles at the plant, according to a company spokesman. The company created a community advisory panel and hosts a quarterly virtual community meeting. During the pandemic, Shell donated money and services to local food banks and charitable organizations, donated hand sanitizer to local schools, donated N95 masks and nitrile gloves to local hospitals, and sponsored an employee donation drive for the Beaver County Humane Society.“The community has benefited from the first day they started moving dirt down at the facility,” Vogel said. In addition to the jobs at the plant, the state senator pointed to the indirect jobs it has created, including those in the new hotels, restaurants, and facilities serving the influx of construction workers from out of town, and in the catering and shuttle services for employees at the site. “One of my neighbors is retired, but he got a job driving workers in from the off-site parking lots a few hours a week,” Vogel said. “Another neighbor up over the hill from me went to Shell’s new training program at the community college and got hired. He’s 21 or 22, and he’ll have a lifetime career there if he wants it.”The political climate in Pennsylvania’s state government is aggressively pro-oil, pro-gas, and pro-industry. That’s driven in part by the Republican-controlled legislature, but Governor Wolf and other state Democrats have also supported the Shell project.State representative Sara Innamorato, who represents parts of Pittsburgh, is one of the few Democrats who opposed the plant. “They say ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ but a lot of legislators stop there in their critical thinking about the benefits of this kind of tax package,” she said. “We aren’t doing the math to figure out this is costing us millions of tax dollars per job. We’re foregoing billions of dollars of revenue over the life of this plant at a time when we can’t afford to make necessary investments in our infrastructure, our public schools, or our small businesses.”Bob Schmetzer spent nearly four decades working as an electrician with the local union. He supports good jobs for union workers. For him, Shell’s promises ring hollow.“I lived through the era when the steel mills all shut down at one time,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re facing that again now. What happens when you take 8,000 temporary workers and they all leave or they’re all out of work again?”For people like Schmetzer, who are living in the shadow of the cracker but not directly benefiting from the jobs, the trade-offs are obvious. His wife died from heart disease a few years ago, which he attributes in part to air pollution from the oil and gas industry and the proliferation of fracking wells. “She already had heart problems, so it wasn’t like air pollution originated it, but it kicked it into gear, and I’m still furious about that,” he said.Following his wife’s death, Schmetzer’s sister, who lived nearby, fled the region when a fracking well went in about a mile from her house. She moved to North Carolina to get away from the well. “I don’t get to see my sister anymore,” he said. “I’m sure someone else would feel the same way if these things happened to their families.”Many others, like Jeff and Cheyenne Bryant, can’t afford to move away. For the Bryant family, the stakes of Shell’s big bet on plastic couldn’t be higher—for Cheyenne in particular. “Twenty years of research on this fracking thing has already proven that it’s bad for our health,” Bryant said. “But they’re still putting in more and more wells that are killing us. It isn’t right.”Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with Sierra Magazine.From Your Site ArticlesRelated Articles Around the Web
A proposed $9.4 billion plastics plant received another body blow Wednesday, after a Louisiana state judge vacated 14 state permits and lambasted regulators for failing to live up to their “constitutional public trust duty.”The ruling is a clear environmental justice win for residents of Welcome, La., a small community with a 99 percent minority population, 87 percent of whom identify as Black.That town, and the plant’s impact on the land and the families living off it, was foremost in Judge Trudy White’s 34 page ruling. “The blood, sweat and tears of their ancestors is tied to the land,” White wrote, noting that Welcome’s demographics reflect its roots as a place once dominated by plantations and now populated by descendents of slaves who worked those plantations.In the ruling, White cited Sharon Lavigne, director of RISE St. James, a local advocacy group, and winner of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize: “These are sacred lands. They were passed down to Black residents from their great-great-great grandparents who worked hard to buy these lands along the Mississippi to make them productive and pass them on to their families.”
The giant facility would have used ethane and propane as feedstock to ultimately make a variety of products used in plastics manufacturing. The project has been on hold since November 2020, when the federal government suspended a permit amid protests from local environmental groups.
White agreed with those groups in her 34-page ruling, saying the state did not do enough to protect the health and well-being of its residents. Regulators technically followed the rules in issuing permits, White wrote, but “the constitutional public trust duty imposes an additional legal standard.”
“It demands [The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] go beyond its regulations if necessary to avoid potential environmental harm to the maximum extent possible” (emphasis in the original).
A 2019 analysis by the nonprofit news site ProPublica estimated that the air around Formosa’s site is more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas of the country. The plant’s proposed emissions, the publication concluded, could triple levels of cancer-causing chemicals in one of the most toxic areas of the U.S.
Formosa credit bounce?
If built, the plant would add 2.4 million tons per year of ethylene to a U.S. market that annually supports some 50 million tons, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, or IEEFA. The facility would also provide a new source of polyethylene, polypropylene and ethyl glycol to the U.S. market.Delays in Formosa Plastics’ proposed petrochemical complex in Louisiana have, curiously, helped the company’s credit rating, Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of financial analysis, noted in a post. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Formosa in October 2020 in part due to the cash drain on the company from its Louisiana project. An upgrade “implies that canceling the project would be better for the company than laying out large sums of cash for a high-risk investment,” Sanzillo wrote.Editor’s note, Sept. 14, 2022: This is a developing story. Check back for updates.From Your Site ArticlesRelated Articles Around the Web
Sri Lanka has received $2.5 million in the third interim payment for the sinking of the X-Press Pearl cargo ship in June 2021, giving it a total of just $7.85 million for the worst maritime disaster in the country’s history.These payments from the Singapore-flagged vessel’s insurer are mainly to reimburse the government for the cost of the emergency response operations and for direct damages and cleanup.Environmental lawyers say the government can and should pursue a much larger compensation claim for the environmental damage wrought.The X-Press Pearl sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast after catching fire, in the process spilling its cargo of hazardous chemicals and billions of plastic pellets that continue to dot the country’s beaches. COLOMBO — Sri Lanka has received $2.5 million in the third interim payment for the impacts caused by the sinking of the X-Press Pearl cargo vessel off the country’s western coast 14 months ago. This is the third tranche of compensation, but Sri Lankan authorities say a much larger claim for the environmental damage is still to be filed.
The latest payment brings the total paid by the ship’s insurer to $7.85 million. Sri Lanka received $3.6 million in July 2021, shortly after the June 2 sinking that was caused by a fire on board the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl, and another $1.75 million in January this year. These payments are mainly to reimburse the government for the cost of the emergency response operations and for direct damages and cleanup, said Darshani Lahandapura, chair of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Agency (MEPA).
“The latest receipt will be distributed among 15,032 fishermen belonging to the fishing communities in the three districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara,” said Susantha Kahawatta, director-general of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR).
A cleanup operation in a coastal area in Sri Lanka, where a thriving fishing industry was affected by the X-Press Pearl’s sinking. Image courtesy of the Marine Environment Protection Authority ( MEPA).
International legal battle pending
The sinking of the ship, which was carrying various chemicals and plastic pellets, led to large-scale pollution was reported in the immediate coastal area and was blamed for killing several marine animals. The leak of the more than 50 billion plastic pellets, known as nurdles, made this the worst plastic marine pollution event in the world, prompting the government to impose a fishing ban along a 50-kilometer (31-mile) stretch of the island’s western coast for more than a month. This particularly affected the artisanal fishers in the region, who lost their only source of livelihood during this period.
The X-Press Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers when it caught fire off Colombo on May 20, 2021, and began sinking. Eighty-one of the containers were labeled hazardous, and the cargo included 25 metric tons of nitric acid — a key ingredient in the production of explosives, and touted as a possible factor for the fire. There were several explosions, and it took more than a week to bring the fire under control. Attempts to tow the vessel to deeper waters failed, and the freighter finally sank on June 2, 2021, a few kilometers off Sri Lanka’s western coast, becoming the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lankan waters.
Sri Lanka imposed a fishing ban across a 50-kilometer (31-mile) span of the island’s western coast following the X-Press Pearl’s sinking. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Fisheries.
The sheer scale of the disaster should be reason enough to “fight to get proper compensation for the country,” said Dan Malika Gunasekera, an expert in maritime law. He cited compensation claims filed by other countries over similar incidents to estimate that Sri Lanka should be able to secure between $5 billion and $7 billion. The inevitable legal battles could be strenuous, as Sri Lanka needs to secure these claims according to international maritime law, which means filing these claims early, Gunasekera told Mongabay.
But more than 14 months since the incident, Sri Lanka has still not filed a claim for the environmental damage suffered, which is being assessed by a panel of experts convened by the MEPA.
“This environmental damage assessment report is now ready and it was submitted to the Attorney General’s Department for instituting necessary actions,” Lahandapura said.
Researchers study contamination of fish due to the marine pollution caused by the X-Press Pearl’s sinking disaster. Image courtesy of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).
Environmentalists push for compensation
The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a local advocacy group, plans to file three lawsuits in the X-Press Pearl case.
“Sri Lanka has not ratified certain conventions which would have helped the island to mount compensation claims for maritime disasters of this kind and of this magnitude,” said CEJ chair Ravindranath Dabare, a prominent environmental lawyer. “CEJ together with other concerned organizations is hence pushing the authorities to take action and filed a case in June 2021 to demand compensation for the affected parties.”
The group is set to file two more cases to ensure the authorities act in a timely manner to secure compensation and completion of the beach cleanup process.
Lahandapura said the MEPA is currently fine-tuning the environmental damage report in consultation with Australian legal experts to ensure the claim stands a strong chance of succeeding in international litigation.
“We cannot unduly expedite the process, as it is an international legal process,” he told Mongabay.
Plastic pellets, or nurdles, from the X-Press Pearl reached Batticoloa on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, a stark reminder of the extent of coastal pollution caused by the disaster. Image courtesy of Pearl Protectors.
Another compensation case
The case of another ship could indicate how Sri Lanka’s claims over the X-Press Pearl sinking play. The Attorney General’s Department filed a compensation claim for up to $44 million against the Greek owners of the crude oil tanker the New Diamond on Sept. 3 — the deadline for filing such a claim.
The Panama-flagged ship caught fire off the western coast of Sri Lanka on Sept. 3, 2020, while carrying 270,000 metric tons of crude oil and 1,700 metric tonnes of bunker oil. A crew member was killed in the incident, but intensive efforts by the Sri Lankan and Indian navies, as well as two Russian naval vessels that were in the area for joint exercises at the time, managed to prevent the oil spilling and the ship sinking. The New Diamond was eventually towed away to a shipbreaking yard in Pakistan.
The Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) noted that Sri Lanka has since received only $6 million in reimbursement and compensation, out of a potential $44 million that it could claim under the Civil Liability Act. But the claim to this full amount must be filed within two years of the New Diamond catching fire, which was Sept. 3 this year.
Lahandapura said that with the MEPA’s support, the Attorney General’s Department filed the case at the last minute.
As for the wreck of the X-Press Pearl, salvage operations have been handed over to the Shanghai Salvage Company. The ship’s owners, Singapore-based X-Press Feeders, said the salvation operation may take at least another year, and is currently on hold due to rough seas along Sri Lanka’s western coast during the monsoon season.
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At 49 Black Sand Beach, in Honoka‘ope Bay, Hawai‘i, a strange, moat-ringed mound sits in the middle of the beach. This tiny island, made of sand piled about half a meter or so high, was built by a beach shower. Every time a beachgoer steps under the shower to rinse off, water cascades from its base, carving gullies into the sand.
But while the shower’s obvious effect on the beach is mostly benign, it belies a more subtle, and potentially more destructive, consequence.
As new research shows, the water that flows from the shower into the nearby surf is laden with a toxic mix of contaminants—including UV filters, microplastics, and parabens. Scientists who’ve tested the water say that this beach shower, like the thousands of others dotted along coastlines around the world, is a source of pollution that sends chemicals flowing into the ocean at concentrations high enough to cause serious damage to marine life.
The problem, says Craig Downs, an ecotoxicologist at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia who coauthored the new paper, is that most beach showers are not plumbed into the local wastewater system. Instead, the runoff spills out onto the land and into the ocean.
Swimmers shed copious amounts of sunscreen and other contaminants into the ocean, and scientists have gathered plenty of evidence that these contaminants can harm marine life. But the concentrations of contaminants flowing from beach showers, Downs explains, are startlingly high. Beach showers, says Downs, are point sources of pollution that can cause concentrations of pollution that seriously threaten local corals, crustaceans, and fish. King tides and monsoons can push these concentrations even higher when all of the contaminants built up in the sand are released in one giant pulse.
Because the showers are point sources of pollution, Downs and his colleagues argue that their owners and operators—which are mainly municipalities—could be sued for violating the US Clean Water Act.
Downs, however, would like to see the situation solved more proactively. “We don’t really want to get rid of the showers,” he says. Instead, “what we can do is apply technologies, or legislation, to end [the showers] being a source of pollution.”
Fixing the showers, however, won’t be easy. Plumbing beach showers into municipal sewer systems won’t work: beach sand can clog traditional wastewater treatment systems. Municipal systems also aren’t built to remove such high levels of these contaminants.
There are technologies that will work, though.
One possibility for addressing the high levels of contaminants in beach showers, says Ranil Wickramasinghe, a chemical engineer at the University of Arkansas who wasn’t involved in the research, is to use a membrane bioreactor. This all-in-one wastewater treatment system uses a thermoplastic or ceramic membrane to catch contaminants and allows clean water to flow through. Microbes ingest the contaminants, rendering them harmless. But there’s a couple of catches: setup costs are high and the microbes must be matched to each contaminant.
Another option, says Carlos Martinez-Huitle, an environmental electrochemist at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, who also wasn’t involved in the research, is using advanced oxidation processes (AOP). There are two modes which could be put to use at the showers, he says: direct AOP, where electricity is applied to the AOP cell, enabling its inner surface material to break pollutants down; or indirect AOP, where the current pulls pollutants to one end, while oxidizers form at the other. The oxidizers then transform the pollutants into benign compounds. Municipalities could collect shower wastewater, filter out the sand, and then apply an AOP device to clear pollutants before discharging the water into the ocean, suggests Martinez-Huitle.
AOP is a power-hungry technology, though, so the key is to pair it with a source of renewable energy. In their lab, Martinez-Huitle and his team have developed a system that uses AOP to clean industrial wastewater with electricity supplied by solar panels or wind turbines.
But even the most cost-effective wastewater treatment technology will test meager municipal budgets. Agreeing which one to use, and then implementing it, will also take time.
In the meantime, the researchers are hoping that consumer education, wider use of ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) clothing, and regulations, like Maui’s incoming chemical sunscreen ban, will help stem the flow of pollutants into the environment.
For Downs, now that we know beach showers can be potent sources of pollution that can threaten marine life, the next steps are obvious. “If you can identify a point source of pollution,” Downs says, “then you have the … responsibility to mitigate that pollutant.”
ASHLEY, Indiana—The bales, bundles and bins of plastic waste are stacked 10 feet high in a shiny new warehouse that rises from a grassy field near a town known for its bright yellow smiley-face water tower.
Jay Schabel exudes the same happy optimism. He’s president of the plastics division of Brightmark Energy, a San Francisco-based company vying to be on the leading edge of a yet-to-be-proven new industry—chemical recycling of plastic.
Walking in the warehouse among 900 tons of a mix of crushed plastic waste in late July, Schabel talked about how he has worked 14 years to get to this point: Bringing experimental technology to the precipice of what he anticipates will be a global, commercial success. He hopes it will also take a bite out of the plastic waste that’s choking the planet.
“When I saw the technology, I said this is the sort of thing I can get out of bed and work on to change the world,” said Schabel, an electrical engineer.
“My job is to set it up and get it running,” he said of the $260 million, 120,000 square foot building and adjacent chemical operations. “Then perpetuate it around the world.”
But the company, which broke ground in Ashley in 2019, has struggled to get the plant operating on a commercial basis, where as many as 80 employees would process 100,000 tons of plastic waste each year in a round-the-clock operation.
Schabel said that was to change in August, with its first planned commercial shipment of fuel to its main customer, global energy giant BP. But a company spokesman said in mid-August that the date for the first commercial shipment had been pushed back to September, with “full-scale operation…extending through the end of the year and into 2023.”
Even with that new timetable, the plant, located along Interstate 69 in the northeast corner of Indiana, Brightmark faces ongoing economic, political and—environmental critics and some scientists say—technical headwinds.
Its business model must contend with plastics that were never designed to be recycled. U.S. recycling policies are dysfunctional, and most plastics end up in landfills and incinerators, or on streets and waterways as litter.
Environmental organizations with their powerful allies in Congress are fighting against chemical recycling and the technology found in this plant, known as pyrolysis, in particular, because they see it as the perpetuation of climate-damaging fossil fuels.
“The problem with pyrolysis is we should not be producing more fossil fuels,” said Judith Enck, a former regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the founder and executive director of Beyond Plastics, an environmental group. “We need to be going in the opposite direction. Using plastic waste as a feedstock for fossil fuels is doubling the damage to the environment because there are very negative environmental impacts from the production, disposal and use of plastics.”
The global plastics crisis is well documented with annual plastic production soaring from 20 million metric tons to 400 million metric tons over the last five decades. Nearly all are made from fossil fuels and much is designed to resist biodegradation and can last in the environment for hundreds of years, increasingly as microscopic bits that are ubiquitous and have invaded the humanbody.
The amount of plastic discharged into the ocean could reach up to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030, or roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually, according to a December report by a committee of scientists with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The U.S. produces the most plastic waste in the world, nearly 300 pounds per person in a year, the report found. But only a small percentage, less than 6 percent, of plastics used by consumers in the U.S. actually get recycled, a recent analysis of EPA data by Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup found.
What does get recycled, such as soda bottles, typically goes through a mechanical process involving sorting, grinding, cleaning, melting and remolding, often into other products. But there are limits to the kinds of plastics that are acceptable for mechanical recycling and how many times these plastics can be re-used in this way.
Chemical recycling, called advanced recycling by the chemical industry— which touts it as almost a Holy Grail of solutions—seeks to turn the harder-to-recycle kinds of plastic waste back into plastics’ basic chemical building blocks. Pyrolysis is among the chemical recycling technologies getting the most attention, with industry representatives saying pyrolysis can turn mixtures of plastic waste into new plastic, fuel or chemicals for making everything from detergents to cars to clothing.
With these plastic wastes, such as grocery bags, cups, lids, containers and films, the industry claims, pyrolysis heats them at high temperatures in a vessel, with little or no oxygen and sometimes with a chemical catalyst, to create synthetic gases, a synthetic fuel called pyrolysis oil, and a carbon char waste product.
It’s a process that’s been around for centuries, used for making tar from timber for wooden ships in the 1600s, for example, or coke from coal for steelmaking in the last century.
Brightmark describes its plant as the “largest-scale pyrolysis facility in the world.” It is designed to take plastic waste hauled in from municipal and industrial sources. The waste is cleaned, chopped up and pressed into small pellets, then fed into pyrolysis tanks and heated by burning natural gas. The synthetic gas created by the pyrolysis process is then mixed with the natural gas to generate temperatures between 800 degrees and 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, Schabel said.
“We flush the molecules out and condense them,” Schabel said, describing what the high heat does to the plastic waste. “We are hitting them with a thermal hammer to break them into pieces. They want to come back together but we control how they come back together.”
The char is sent to a landfill as non-hazardous waste, he said, and the pyrolysis oil goes to a small-scale refinery behind the warehouse, where it’s separated into low-sulfur diesel fuel, flammable liquid naphtha, and wax for industrial uses or candles.
“We call this a hyper-local oil well,” Schabel said on the tour.
But a lot of what comes into the plant gets lost in the process.
In a document Brightmark filed in December with the EPA, the company acknowledged that just 20 percent of the plant’s output is its primary product—what it described as fuels. Most of the rest, 70 percent, is the synthetic gas that the company said is combusted with natural gas to generate heat, with 20 percent of that syngas burned away in a flare. The rest is the char, according to the filing.
The company now disputes its own numbers, with a spokeswoman saying company officials are working to get them corrected to reflect a larger percentage of output as diesel fuel or naphtha.
But the EPA filing plays into one of the sharpest criticisms of pyrolysis—that it’s not really plastics recycling at all.
The Brightmark plant in Ashley, Indiana. The San Francisco company plans to turn waste plastic into diesel fuel, naphtha, and wax. Credit: James Bruggers
With pyrolysis, “what you make is what I would call, and I grew up in New Jersey, so forgive me, a dog’s breakfast of compounds,” said University of Pittsburgh Professor Eric Beckman, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. in polymer science. “It’s like everything you can think of, gases, liquids, solids,” he said.
If plastic waste could be turned only into naphtha, a bonafide building block for plastics, a company could operate what Beckman called a closed loop, and circular system for plastics that could be considered recycling, he said. But that is not what pyrolysis does.
“And this is where it gets controversial,” Beckman said, adding: “because you have people doing this who are saying, ‘We’re recycling it.’ No, you’re not. You’re burning it.” And any time that fossil fuels are being burned, he said, they are emitting greenhouse gas and air pollutants.
Jan Dell, a chemical engineer who has worked as a consultant to the oil and gas industry and now runs The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit that fights plastic waste, agreed.
“The fact that pyrolysis operations have to burn so much of the material to get to the high temperatures is a fundamental flaw,” she said.
EPA Rules Under Review
Brightmark and its expansion plans come as the Environmental Protection Agency weighs how to regulate pyrolysis, with air quality and economics on the line.
EPA regulations now consider pyrolysis to be incineration, which brings tighter clean-air controls. But in the waning months of the Trump administration, EPA proposed an industry-friendly rule change that stated that pyrolysis is not combustion and thus should not be regulated as incineration.
“The appropriate regulation of this is really critical if you want to scale advance recycling, and you want to use more recycled material in your products,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, a leading lobby for the plastics industry.
Facilities that turn plastic waste into gas and then burn the gas to help generate heat for the pyrolysis process are in effect still burning the plastic, with at least some oxygen involved in both steps in the process, said attorney James Pew, director of the environmental group Earthjustice’s clean air practice.
“The absolute crux of this issue is whether these new incinerators have to put on controls, like with conventional incinerators, or whether they can skip that and not control or monitor their pollution,” said Pew.
Pressure is mounting on EPA, which, according to a spokeswoman, is gathering public input and still deciding its next steps for pyrolysis and a related technology known as gasification. In mid July, 35 lawmakers including Rep. Jamie Raskin, and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Corey Booker, wrote to the EPA, urging the agency to fully regulate plastic chemical recycling’s emissions and to stop working to promote the technology as a solution to the plastics crisis.
“Chemical recycling contributes to our growing climate crisis and leads to toxic air emissions that disproportionately impact vulnerable communities,” the lawmakers wrote.
Struggling to Meet Its Timetable
At the end of July, Brightmark Chief Executive Officer Bob Powell, in a Zoom interview from his San Francisco office, said the company was still working to iron the last kinks out of its system.
“We have operated it at startup levels,” Powell said. “We’re just now at the point where we’re mechanically complete, and we’re starting to … create those finished products.”
Groundbreaking was in 2019, after the company secured a $260 million financing package that included $185 million bonds through the Indiana Finance Authority, underwritten by Goldman Sachs. Authority officials said the financing is not a state debt and Brightmark will be entirely on the hook to repay them.
The company has struggled to meet its timetable, Schabel acknowledged on the tour of the plant. He said it has taken time to secure an optimal stream of plastic waste for which there was no market, deal with delays caused by the Covid pandemic and navigate the challenges of developing new technology.
Dell said she’s not surprised, adding that she believes that despite the overall abundance of plastic waste on the planet, securing a steady stream of the kind of plastic waste the company has targeted will be an insurmountable challenge. The company has said it will largely recycle mixed, post-consumer plastics, the kind that millions of Americans toss in their recycling bins every week.
But these wastes are made of many different kinds of plastics, with a range of chemical compositions, and they vary by city and season, she said. Some of the plastics harm the pyrolysis process by introducing oxygenated molecules which reduce yield and lower the quality of the pyrolysis oil output, she said.
Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, holds plastic pellets in his hand the company’s new chemical recycling plant in northeast Indiana at the end of July. Credit: James Bruggers
Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, common in consumer product labels, films and packaging, adds chlorine atoms that can cause equipment corrosion and contaminate the pyrolysis oil, she said. Household plastic waste from municipal waste-handling facilities is also contaminated with other garbage that upsets the pyrolysis process, including liquids, food, dirt, paper, glass, metal and polystyrene foam, Dell added.
“There’s this perception that there’s so much plastic waste in the world and in the country, which there is,” Dell said. “And then they hold up this magic plant that they say is going to recycle everything from households all mixed together, and people believe it. But it can’t. It can’t handle the changing variety of household plastic waste and the unavoidable contamination.”
Beckman, the University of Pittsburgh professor, said he was particularly surprised to see the company plans to accept PVC.
“I do not know how they’re taking in PVC, and not getting something you really don’t want,” he said. That could include dioxins or other possible unwanted chlorinated products and more char, he added.
The EPA considers dioxins to be persistent organic pollutants, highly toxic and potentially cancer-causing.
“There have been people who have looked at this in different ways over the years, asking, ‘What can we do?’ And honestly, what you can do is make sure (PVC) never goes into a pyrolysis unit,” Beckman said.
For his part, Schabel acknowledged taking in mixed plastic wastes can be a challenge but said they can all be handled by the company’s technology, which he described as proprietary. He declined to go into specifics about the proprietary nature of the company’s technology, which was developed by RES Polyflow, the Ohio company he served as chief executive officer before joining Brightmark.
He said the plant can process PVC, but added: “If we pull out more of it, we get a better yield.”
‘Greenwashing Up the Wazoo’
The company, which is also developing manure-to-gas projects across the United States, markets its Ashley plant as a “plastics renewable facility” in an effort to try to position itself as a green solution to global plastics and climate crises. For the Ashley plant, it commissioned a study known in the industry as an “environmental lifecycle analysis” from consultants at Environmental Clarity, Inc.
The report found that, when compared to a typical waste stream in the United States where 17 percent of plastic waste is incinerated, the Brightmark pyrolysis plant produces 39 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than equivalent products made from virgin materials.
The study’s carbon footprint analysis may be true, said Terrence Collins, a professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CMU Institute for Green Science. But he said there are too many assumptions built into the study for him to know for sure.
The study was also silent on many other potential environmental impacts that are often included or should be, in any lifecycle analyses of an industrial process, Collins said.
Its biggest flaw, Collins said, was to give short shrift to the plant’s potential environmental impacts from toxic chemical emissions, including dioxins and common additives to plastics that are known to be endocrine disruptors. Those are hormone-mimicking chemicals that, once inhaled or consumed, can cause reproductive and developmental problems in fetuses.
“I did not see a single measurement for dioxin, or even talking about it,” in the report, he said. “You don’t find endocrine disruption as a term. You don’t find health” mentioned, he added.
“It’s greenwashing up the wazoo,” Collins said of the incomplete lifecycle analysis, combined with how Brightmark markets itself on its website using the children of one of its engineers using plastic toys and talking about the need to stop ocean-dumping of plastics.
“They are proposing to go into a regime of more sustainability technology, and they should be held to task,” Collins said. They are “creating a case for no toxics without the science,” and “having it done by a little kid whose generation will be impacted. If you market through children, you raise the stakes; you really need to prove it,” Collins said.
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