New metal? Hope and fear as the new plastic industry rises in Appalachia

Some see the plastic complex near Pittsburgh as a benefit to a struggling region, while others fear a return to a toxic past with a product


Steve Krizan, 64, remembers the night of Aliquippa when the bell rang. Back in the 1970s, more than 60 percent of the workers in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, were tied to a metal bar, and Aliquippa was a beating heartbeat in the industry. The streets were lined with clean houses and busy shops, and by the end of the day's work, the bars were filled with metalworkers and punched packets.

"Aliquippa was prosperous," said Krizan, then a metalworker. But when the layoffs began, he said, it was the first sign of what would be a regional disaster: the collapse of the steel industry.

"It seemed that once it started, it snowed," Krizan said. “In this case it is metal, but it does not matter what it is. When a city-based business collapses, it's a tragedy. ”

Today, just 10 minutes drive, there is a new industry coming up on the banks of the Ohio River: The multi-billion dollar Royal Dutch Shell ethan “cracker,” the industrial ethanol industry, part natural gas, and cracks. ”Into ethylene, a plastic building block. Krizan, who got a second job as a truck driver, is now one of the nearly 8,000 temporary employees who report daily to cracker. He transports gasoline, which drives a large area to provide an average of 10,000 liters per day.

Launched in 2022, the Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex will make 1.6 million metric tons a year from what many say the world needs less: plastic pellets will be plastic products, from sports gear to wrinkles.

Samples of plastic pellets produced by Royal Dutch Shell at their factory in Beaver County, Pa.Ross Mantle / NYT via Redux file

It will also be the first ethane cracker for Appalachia. Not far from the oil-producing facilities along the Gulf Coast, the region where coal and iron once dominated is perhaps the smallest manufacturer's home. But in recent years, states have donated more than $ 1 billion to attract plastic projects in an area where hydraulic fracturing - "fracking" - has produced an abundance of cheap natural gas. In 2012, Pennsylvania executives bet heavily on Shell by approving a $ 1.65 billion tax debt for ethylene projects.

Tax credit was a hallmark of the industry that “the public sector has been able to be a good partner,” said Mark Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, a nonprofit economic development organization. Shell's cracker, he added, is a "long-term game" that many hope will boost regional growth.

"The economic downturn associated with these employment and contract opportunities will be felt for decades," Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said in a statement.

But some, including some citizens and lawyers, fear that in the face of climate change and globalization, such projects are not just risky investments, but the wrong choice of a region that still struggles to recover from the toxic industrial past.

"We've seen this for generations," said Rob Altenburg, director of the Energy Center at PennFuture, an environmental group. "They come in, take profits, the industry is moving, and it leaves Pennsylvania taxpayers with a fund not only for the economic impact of this, but also for the public health impact."

"We do the same thing as Shell," he added. "Ignore the carbon emissions they emit and give them money for pollution."

The industry was "trying to determine, 'Well, if we can make money by digging for oil and gas in the way we did 20 years ago and the refining industry is becoming more and more competitive and unprofitable, what is our future?' ”Said Kathy Hipple, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a developing regional tank, and a professor of finance at the MBA in Sustainability program at Bard College. "Plastic or petrochemicals are considered a way of life."

The industrial pivot, partially promoted by cheap natural gas opened by the fracking boom, has led to an increase in the production of plastics.

The industry has poured tens of billions into plastic projects in the US According to a report released last month by Bennington College and Beyond Plastics, a promotional group dedicated to eliminating plastic pollution, the US ethylene production capacity has grown to 45 million tons a year. since 2005, an increase of 69 percent. Most of these developments took place on the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana, where so-called telephone communities have long been under pressure from petrochemical structures, and when plastic manufacturers have recently undergone extensive scrutiny and public sanctions for air and water pollution.

But the industry has also put its products in Appalachia. The region is close to the East Coast producers and is rich in “liquid” gas, which contains much of the ethane needed to make plastic. Government and state officials have encouraged the petrochemical industry as a sign of regional renewal, not just in terms of potential jobs, but in potential growth after projects like Shell's cracker - from restaurants and hotels to transportation and manufacturing.

"It is not that the industry alone will save all communities in need of investment," said Thomas, of the Pittsburgh Alliance. "But it will create enough fire that it could have an impact."