Cranes are seen as they work on construction of the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex and ethylene cracker plant located in Potter Township, Pa, from across the Ohio River, Oct. 3 2019..
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. It's good to have you with us. It's been 48 days since a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
Female Speaker 1: I worry because nobody really knows. This is unusual for this to happen here. Even though they say it's okay now, of course, we're all concerned about it, we are.
Female Speaker 2: My mattress, my couches, they just smell of the chemicals. My clothes, trying to get the chemical smell out.
Male Speaker 1: Whenever I got back, it still smelled a little plasticky in the air. I'm asthmatic, so I immediately hit my inhaler. I could tell it was hitting my chest.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Derailment ignited a large fire near this town of 4,700, forcing almost half the population to evacuate. A few days later, authorities began a controlled burn of many of these toxic materials, aimed at avoiding an explosion. It created a towering black plume of thick smoke that lingered over the area for hours. Since that day, February 3rd, residents of East Palestine and neighboring towns in the upper Ohio River Valley have feared that their water, soil, and air are contaminated with carcinogens and other harmful materials. While there have been at least a dozen other trained derailments across the country this year, certain physical characteristics of this region make it clear that an event like this was centuries in the making.
Eve: In Appalachia, you have a lot of hills and haulers going into each other, and in the river valleys is where industrial facilities tend to be concentrated because that's also where the railroads are so it's for ease of transportation, generally. My name is Eve Andrews. I'm a freelance journalist reporting on the environment based in Pittsburgh.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Eve recently visited the region and spoke with residents for a story published in Grist, that's an independent outlet covering climate change.
Eve: When those industrial facilities are polluting, when they give off a lot of air pollution, that then gets trapped in the river valleys, especially in a weather system called an inversion, which is where the air rises as the ground cools as it turns into night, gets trapped by an atmospheric cover, it traps the air pollution lower to the ground where it spreads out and can't really leave the area for a day or a night or something like that. That same weather system is what happened when they burnt off the vinyl chloride of the East Palestine train derailment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, vinyl chloride is a key ingredient in the production of many plastics, and this region has been undergoing a plastics boom over the last decade. It culminated in the recent opening of a plant run by the petrochemical giant Shell, and locals know it as the cracker plant, a name that comes from a step in the process of refining natural gas.
Eve: The cracker plant opened in the fall of 2022. It shows the movement of the fossil fuel industry away from making their business all about the production of fuels and focusing more on the production of plastics. What happens at the cracker plant is they break down natural gas to produce ethylene. Ethylene, it's the building block for all kinds of household and single-use plastics. The form that it takes when they manufacture it, they're these tiny little translucent beads, and then those can get melted down to create any plastic bottle that you see is produced by ethylene.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In producing this, what kind of waste is produced, and what kinds of effects does that then have on the surrounding environment?
Eve: The predominant concern is that the communities immediately around the Shell plant, which is on the Ohio River in the town of Monaca. The communities immediately around the plant are concerned about what happens when the plant has a flaring episode. When the plant flares, it's a safety mechanism to prevent a worse outcome because something's gone wrong with the functionings of the plant.
The flaring, it's meant to control that malfunctioning and let off whatever emissions are produced by it. The problem is that when the plant flares, it emits volatile organic compounds into the air around the plant. The Pennsylvania Department of the Environment, they have issued a limit on how many VOCs, volatile organic compounds, the plant can emit in a year, and it has already exceeded that limit this year in the three, four months that it's been operational.
Melissa Harris-Perry: So often we talk about the Ohio River Valley as coal country, but it sounds to me this is much more plastics country. Is that right?
Eve: This area is in the middle of a shift to plastics production. It hasn't been a major coal area for quite some time, but starting around 2007, Western Pennsylvania, the whole swath of Pennsylvania, honestly, but particularly the very Southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, became a very intense fracking site. There's still a whole lot of fracking sites that are operational in this region, and that is to extract natural gas because we are on the Marcellus Shale, which is a very, very productive source of natural gas.
As we're having this societal shift away from dependence on oil and gas as fuels, the fossil fuel industry is starting to turn its attentions more toward the manufacturing of plastics, which are fossil fuel based. The cracker plant is meant to take advantage of this rich natural resource of natural gas that we have in this geographical area and turn that into the building blocks of plastic just right on site.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The train derailment brings our attention to this. Can you talk a little bit about that, about what those train cars were carrying that derailed, and how they're connected to this industry?
Eve: The train was carrying a number of different hazardous chemicals. 11 train cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, and five of those were carrying vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is the basis chemical for making polyvinyl chloride, PVC, which is a very common type of plastic. This derailment was so significant at least in my opinion, because it was a completely separate incident of plastic manufacturing pollution that happened just about 18-20 miles from this other incredibly polluting plastics manufacturing site in the upper Ohio River Valley.
They had nothing to do with each other, but it just shows the risk that plastic production can pose to a region, even if you're not immediately alongside the polluting facility itself.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, again, this moment draws our attention to it, but we're talking about decades and decades of this kind of pollution. What does that mean for communities like East Palestine and their residents, who've both had this long exposure but also have sometimes had centuries of relationship with these companies?
Eve: I spoke with one source for this story. He's lived his whole life in the area of Enon Valley, Pennsylvania. It's one of the towns across the Pennsylvania border that's immediately alongside East Palestine. He was saying how he's lived his whole life in this region, and he's familiar and has been exposed to all kinds of different forms of polluting industry. There's coal plants, hazardous waste incinerators, steel plants, nuclear power plants, but he said he had never felt really strongly the impacts of any of these, and he had never felt so violated by the impacts of pollution like this until this train derailment because it happened just a few miles from his home, his workplace, his family.
I want to emphasize that I think that is very much the case in this region. You're aware of this legacy of industrial pollution, and you're aware of how much industry has shaped and influenced everything here for hundreds of years. However, you might not really think about the harms of the pollution itself until it is literally in your backyard, and that's what happened in this East Palestine disaster because it's a rural area. It is kind of protected from a lot of the industry that is polluting in the River Valley just a few miles south of it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, quick break. More on the train derailment in East Palestine right after this. Okay, we're back with Eve Andrews, freelance journalist reporting on the environment based in Pittsburgh. Is part of the reason that maybe communities, they see it, but they don't necessarily have an awareness, mean are the petrochemical plants, are they providing stable, good-paying jobs for residents?
Eve: I think there's a myth that the jobs that they provide to the community are worth it. They do provide some jobs, but there's another source who I spoke with for this story, her name is Amanda Kiger and she's the director of a community organizing group in East Liverpool, Ohio called River Valley Organizing. She said something that will also stick with me about how communities are starting to get pretty sick of this trade-off. Like is it worth it to have these jobs so that the communities themselves get poisoned? I think that's a theme that you can find in any industrial town anywhere in the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've seen that the EPA has ordered that Norfolk clean up the contaminated soil and water resources after the derailment. Where are we now on that and on what we know about potential long-term health risks?
Eve: Quick background. Two or three days after the derailment happened, Norfolk Southern performed a controlled burn-off of the vinyl chloride. They said so that it would keep it from leaching out into the environment more than it already had. It would prevent a less controlled explosion, but there is concern that in that burn-off, which many consider to be the best of a bunch of terrible options, dioxins were produced, which are a chemical byproduct of an explosion like this. Dioxins are carcinogenic and they can persist in soil and land for decades without proper cleanup. The EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to do testing for dioxins, which they weren't originally going to do. That will be ongoing for some time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I know that you grew up in this region. I'm wondering how you would like to see it change.
Eve: You know it's so funny. I was born and raised here and honestly, I don't think I was ever really aware of industrial pollution issues in this region until I became an environmental journalist and I started to report on these things. This is a strange region because there's so much pride in the industrial heritage and in the industrial history that sometimes gets a little tied up with acceptance of pollution. Like, "Oh, this is just where we live. This is how it's always been."
I do think that position and that perspective is nearing its expiration point. I think there is a shift happening in community groups who are incredibly concerned with how pollution persists even as Pittsburgh gains this more contemporary reputation as an environmentally aware city, a green city. Meanwhile, there is just considerable and arguably worsening air pollution issues. It's hard not to see that as emblematic of the fossil fuel industries continuing hold on the upper Ohio Valley.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Eve Andrews, I so appreciate your time today. Eve is based in Pittsburgh and reported on these issues for grist. Eve, thanks for joining The Takeaway.
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