Climate Corner: It doesn’t have to be that way

Feb 25, 2023

George Banziger

On Feb. 3 a train consisting of 151 total cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. About 20 of the cars were carrying hazardous materials, and five of the cars contained vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC. This chemical is linked to liver cancer. While the air and water may be safe for now, skepticism is justified. Long after public officials and reporters have left East Palestine and the neighboring communities, there may be long-term risks of chronic diseases, such as cancer from this accident.

Residents of Appalachia including the Mid-Ohio Valley have long been forced to suffer chronic diseases caused by exposure to chemicals, particulates, and contaminated air and water linked to the extraction and transport of fossil fuels and products derived from these resources. In Washington County the combined cancer rate, according to the Ohio Department of Health, is 494.5, as compared to the statewide figure of 461.5 and the national figure of 439.2. In West Virginia, where the entire state has been the victim of this abuse, the combined cancer rate is 487.4. One county in our region, Wirt County, has the highest rate of lung cancer in the state of West Virginia (West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources).

The manufacturing of plastics and the extraction of natural gas (methane) for development into plastics, as well as the transport of these materials and the waste products associated with them, will be increased in the region with the establishment of the new “cracker” plant (utilizing a process to crack methane molecules) in western Pennsylvania. If producers of natural gas have their way, fracking (i.e., hydraulic fracturing) of natural gas and its conversion to liquified form, and the transport of this material will be increased in order to provide more export of liquified natural gas.

Our region seems to suffer the high risks of health problems and air and water contamination while experiencing limited benefit from fossil fuels and their products. Washington County, Ohio leads the state in volume of brine waste (from fracking) injected into its grounds. This county gets the waste and the attendant risk of transport of these toxic and radioactive materials (from wells in West Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as from Ohio) but little of the benefit.

We have been told that these health and environmental risks are the price we have to pay for economic development and job creation in the region. But where are the profits, jobs, and prosperity from these industries going and how much benefit to the Appalachian region of the Ohio Valley accrues to these investments? In a study done by the Ohio River Valley Institute (July 2021) it was reported that from 2008-2019 in the 22 counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, which produce 90% of the natural gas in Appalachia, economic prosperity, in terms of jobs, income, and population growth, trailed the U.S. measures of these factors. In that period the number of jobs increased just 1.6%, eight percentage points below the U.S. figure, and personal income was one-third below the national average. The demographics of our region continue to show decline of population as young people choose to leave. In other words, little revenue or benefit from all this activity with natural gas has accrued to the region. Natural gas extraction and plastics manufacturing are capital-intensive enterprises. What is needed for job creation and sustained prosperity in the region is activity that is labor-intensive.

It does not have to be the case that fossil fuels and the waste associated with their extraction, transport, and manufacturing have to be such an important part of the economy of our region. There are some encouraging examples of new manufacturing, economic development, and job creation coming out of West Virginia. Gov. Jim Justice has announced a repurposing of a steel mill in Wierton to produce batteries for the electric vehicle market. In South Charleston a new plant will be established for the manufacture of electric school buses. Old coal-fired power plants, which contaminate our air and air throughout a large portion of the country, can be repurposed for other uses, such as the two closed plants in Washington County. The movement toward energy efficiency in industries and homes can spark new jobs in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning as well as in lighting–jobs and profits that are local.