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Shell ethane cracker plant: a massively subsidised health hazard

Guest Opinion: Jobs and health hazards: Don’t let Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ come to Pennsylvania

By Julieta Biegner, Global Witness: 13 August 2019

Today, President Trump is set to visit a Shell petrochemical plant where state subsidies cost $2.75 million per permanent job created.

The White House has made clear that it expects Pennsylvania to play a key role in its U.S. energy dominance agenda, citing the cusp of an “Appalachian Petrochemical Renaissance.” So it comes as no shock that Trump will visit a Beaver County petrochemical plant today.

The apparent purpose of the trip is to tout domestic manufacturing and energy production.

But in reality, the Shell ethane cracker plant is a massively subsidized health hazard, with overblown claims of jobs and health risks reminiscent of Louisiana’s so-called “cancer alley” — a toxic stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where industrial plants have been linked to cancer clusters. Instead of praising the new plant in Pennsylvania, we should be concerned about the hazards this plant poses.

The White House said the president’s deregulation policies have made it possible for multibillion-dollar investments from companies like Shell to create “the potential for the Appalachian region to become a second center of U.S. petrochemical manufacturing.”

While it’s important to recognize the need for bringing jobs to the region, let’s be honest about their true costs.

State lawmakers offered Shell a record-smashing $1.65 billion in tax incentives for building the plant, which will reportedly cost $6 billion to build. And, according to Shell, the plant will support 6,000 construction jobs at the peak of work, but will only lead to 600 permanent jobs, which, discounting the temporary construction jobs, would mean a cost of approximately $2.75 million in subsidies for each permanent job over 25 years — money that could have created many more jobs in the renewable energy sector.

And it’s not just the economic costs that don’t add up.

Pennsylvania taxpayers will have to pay for Shell’s tax breaks, while local population could bear some of the heaviest costs. To understand those likely costs we can turn to Norco, Louisiana. Back in 2012 when Pennsylvania was just developing its incentives to bring Shell to Beaver County, Pennsylvania, officials flew to Louisiana to visit two of the company’s petrochemical plants.

Apparently they didn’t bring back lessons from the state’s “Chemical Corridor,” known by many of its residents as “Cancer Alley.” Home to more than 100 industrial plants, the name stems from studies starting in the late 1970s that showed cancer clusters forming along the river near industrial plants emitting harmful toxins into the air.

Western Pennsylvanians could face the same fate.

Officials for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection have told the public that two studies have been carried out on the health impact of the plant, which found “that there would be no detrimental effect on human health through the environment, and the Department of Health also reviewed those results and concurred with our findings.”

Shell spokesman Joseph Minnitte told local news that Shell “takes the health of the community and our staff very seriously.” He added, “Inhalation risk assessments performed by Shell and PA DEP concluded that chronic cancer and noncancer risks as well as acute noncancer risks do not exceed PA DEP’s benchmarks.”

However, environmental nonprofit Clean Air Council highlights that the cracker plant can emit up to 30.5 tons of Hazardous Air Pollutants each year in the region that has some of the nation’s dirtiest air already. These pollutants are known to, or are suspected to, cause cancer or other serious health effects. Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist and advocate who studied the impact of similar plants in Louisiana said the Beaver cracker would lead to more petrochemical plants in the area, with a dramatic impact on health as a result. “It’s going to be as bad or worse than any of the plants in Louisiana and then suddenly, you’re going to have a Pennsylvania cancer alley like we have here in Louisiana,” she told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 recently.

Meanwhile, the state of Pennsylvania is experiencing an oil and gas boom that is expected to explode over the next decade, exacerbating local air and water pollution while spelling doom for global climate ambition.

While it is unlikely the president will reconsider his professed love for the energy economy during his visit, we can’t ignore the true costs of this “Appalachian Petrochemical Renaissance.” At $2.75 million a job, the bill is steep, and despite Shell’s $20 billion in profits last year, that goes on the tab of everyday Pennsylvanians.

Shell is not new to scandal and conflict. The company and some of its most senior former executives are currently standing trial in Europe accused of international corruption in a case that we investigated.

In 2011, Shell and its partner, Italian oil company ENI, paid more than $1 billion, which ended up going to a convicted money launderer in a deal the company’s CEO called “morally OK.” Prosecutors in Italy say the payment funded a vast bribery scheme that allegedly paid off Nigeria’s former president and other senior officials.

That single Shell deal is projected to deprive ordinary Nigerians of nearly $6 billion, more than twice the country’s health and education budgets combined, in a country where one in 10 children do not live to their fifth birthday. The trial in Italy is continuing, and Shell and its executives deny wrongdoing.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, the question emerges: As Shell profits and the president touts the number of jobs created, will ordinary Pennsylvanians truly benefit from the new petrochemical renaissance?

Julieta Biegner is a member of the communications team at Global Witness, an international watchdog organization that has been exposing corruption, human rights and environmental abuses for the last 25 years.

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