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Warmer air is thinning most of the vast mountain range’s glaciers, known as the Third Pole because they contain so much ice. The melting could have far-reaching consequences for flood risk and for water security for a billion people who rely on meltwater for their survival.
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St. James Parish, located on a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to the high concentration of petrochemical plants, is home to the country’s largest producer of polystyrene — the foam commonly found in soft drink and takeout containers.
Now, the owner of that plant wants to build a new facility in the same area that would break down used foam cups and containers into raw materials that can be turned into other kinds of plastic. While there’s limited data on what kinds of emissions this type of facility creates, environmental advocates are concerned that the new plant could represent a new source of carcinogens like dioxin and benzene in the already polluted area.
The proposed plant comes as the U.S. federal and state governments and private companies pour billions into “chemical recycling” research, which is touted as a potential solution to anemic plastics recycling rates. Proponents say that, despite mounting restrictions on single-use packaging, plastics aren’t going away anytime soon, and that chemical recycling is needed to keep growing amounts of plastic waste out of landfills and oceans.
But questions abound about whether the plants are economically viable — and how chemical recycling contributes to local air pollution, perpetuating a history of environmental injustices and climate change.
Skeptics argue that chemical recycling is an unproven technology that amounts to little more than the latest PR effort from the plastics industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is deciding whether or not to continue regulating the plants as incinerators, with some lawmakers expressing concerns last month about toxic emissions from these facilities.
“They’re going to be managing toxic chemicals…and they’re going to be putting our communities at risk for either air pollution or something worse,” Jane Patton, a Baton Rouge native and manager of the Center for International Environmental Law’s plastics and petrochemicals campaign, told EHN of the proposed new plant in Louisiana.
The air of St. James Parish, where the new plant will be located, has among the highest pollution levels along the Mississippi River corridor dubbed “Cancer Alley.” A joint investigation in 2019 by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate found that most of the new petrochemical facilities in the parish –including the recycling plant– will be located near the mostly Black 5th District.
What is chemical recycling?
When most of us picture recycling, we picture what industry insiders call “mechanical recycling:” plastics are sorted, cleaned, crushed or shredded and then melted to be made into new goods.
In the U.S., though, less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled due to challenges ranging from contamination to variability in plastic types and coloring. “No flexible plastic packaging can be recycled with mechanical recycling — the only real plastic that can be recycled are number one and number two water bottles and milk jugs,” George Huber, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin and head of the multi-university research center for Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics, told EHN.
Enter chemical recycling –– processes that use high heat, chemicals, or both to break used plastic goods down into their chemical building blocks to, in theory, make more plastics. Proponents say that chemical recycling can complement more traditional recycling by handling mixed and harder-to-recycle plastics.
“An advantage of advanced recycling is that it can take more of the 90% of plastics that aren’t recycled today, including the hard-to-recycle films, pouches and other mixed plastics, and remake them into virgin-quality new plastics approved for medical and food contact applications,” Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, told EHN.
A long and winding history
The technology has actually been around for decades, with an initial wave of plants built in the 1990s, but it didn’t take off then because of operational and economic challenges. Huber said some factors have changed, like a significant increase in plastic use and China’s refusal to accept other countries’ waste, that make chemical recycling more viable this time around.
Yet a 2021 Reuters investigation found that commercial viability remains a major challenge for chemical recyclers due to difficulties like contamination of the incoming plastic, high energy costs, and the need to further clean the outputs before they can become plastic.
“It's one thing in theory to design something on paper — it's a whole huge challenge to build a plant, get it operational, get the permits and for it to perform like you think it would,” Huber said.
Tracking down just how many chemical recycling plants operate today in the U.S. is tricky — and depends in part on what one counts as “recycling.”
Potential climate impacts
Most of the plants in the U.S. are pyrolysis facilities, which use huge amounts of energy to heat plastics up enough to break their chemical bonds, raising concerns about their climate impacts if that energy comes from burning fossil fuels. An analysis from Closed Loop Partners found that, depending on the technology, carbon emissions from chemical recycling ranged from 22% higher to 45% lower than virgin plastics production.
“It's a very promising technology to tackle the problem of (plastic) waste, but if you don't concurrently tackle the challenge of where the energy is coming from, there's a problem,” Rebecca Furlong, a chemistry PhD candidate at the University of Bath who has conducted life cycle assessments of plastics recycling technologies, told EHN.
A life cycle assessment study prepared for a British chemical recycling company found that chemical recycling has a significantly lower climate impact than waste-to-energy incineration — but produced almost four times as many greenhouse gas emissions as landfilling the plastic.
The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that there are at least seven plants in the U.S. doing plastics-to-plastics recycling, although many of those facilities also turn plastics into industrial fuel. For example, according to records reviewed by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, in 2018 a facility located in Oregon and owned by one of the companies planning to build the Louisiana plant, converted 216.82 pounds of polystyrene into the plastics building block styrene, sending roughly the same amount to be burned at a cement kiln.
The ACC, European Union regulators and Furlong and her advisor, Matthew Davidson, say plastics to fuel shouldn’t count as recycling. “Clearly digging oil out of the ground, using it as a plastic, and then burning it is not hugely different from digging it out of the ground and burning it,” Davidson, director of the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies at the University of Bath, told EHN.
Unknowns about environmental health impacts
Depending on the type of plastic waste the facilities are processing, the plants can generate hazardous compounds.
Chemical recycling saw a boost under the Trump administration, including a formal partnership between the federal Department of Energy and the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies on behalf of the plastics industry, to scale up chemical recycling technologies.
There’s limited information, however, on the environmental health impacts of chemical recycling plants. Furlong said she had not included hazardous waste generation in her life cycle assessments because of a lack of data. Tangri said there have been few studies outside the lab, in part because there are relatively few chemical recycling plants out there. Additionally, the ones that do exist are either too small to meet the EPA’s pollution reporting threshold, or are housed within a larger petrochemical complex and so don’t separately report out their air pollution emissions.
Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report looking at eight facilities in the U.S. The environmental group found that one facility in Oregon sent around half a million pounds of hazardous waste, including benzene and lead, to incinerators in Washington, Colorado, Missouri and three other states. Hazardous waste incinerators can release toxic air pollution to nearby communities. Additionally, some hazardous waste incinerators in the U.S. have repeatedly violated air pollution standards and the EPA has recently raised serious concerns about a backlog of hazardous waste piling up due to limited incineration capacity.
The Oregon facility, which is supposed to break down polystyrene into styrene, also sent more than 100,000 pounds of styrene in 2020 to be burned in waste to energy plants rather than recycled back into new plastics, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s report.
Plastics contain a range of additives, like phthalates and bisphenols, that have serious health concerns. The European Chemicals Agency expressed concerns in a 2021 report about the extent to which chemical recycling could eliminate these chemicals, especially “legacy” additives like lead-stabilized PVC that the EU no longer allows, and prevent them from showing up in new plastic products.
The agency also cautioned that, depending on the type of plastic waste the facilities are processing, pyrolysis and gasification plants can generate hazardous compounds such as dioxins, volatile organic compounds and PCBs. Dioxins are considered “highly toxic” by the EPA as they can cause cancer, reproductive issues, immune system damage and other health issues. Volatile organic compounds can cause breathing difficulties and harm the nervous system; and some, like benzene, are also carcinogens. The agency noted that companies are required to take measures, like installing flue gas cleaning systems and pre-treatment of wastewater, to limit emissions.
Additionally, experts interviewed by the EU highlighted an overall lack of transparency about the kinds of chemicals used in some of the chemical recycling processes.
The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that emissions from most chemical recycling plants are too low to trigger Clean Air Act permits, citing a recent report from consultant Good Company and sponsored by the ACC that found that emissions from four plants in the U.S. were on par with those from a hospital and food manufacturing plant.
The trade group claims the plants are “designed to avoid dioxin formation with many interventions, the primary one being that the plastic material is heated in a closed, oxygen-deprived environment that is not combustion,” and that the facilities would be subject to violations or operating restrictions if dioxins were formed.
As the EPA decides what to do about chemical recycling plants, 20 states — including Louisiana, where the new plant could be built — have already passed laws that would regulate the facilities as manufacturers rather than solid waste facilities, according to the American Chemistry Council — a move that environmental advocates say could lead to less oversight and more pollution. “Whenever I see a big push for exemptions from environmental statutes, I get a little concerned,” Judith Enck, director of the anti-plastics advocacy group Beyond Plastics, told EHN.
Advocates in Louisiana fear the new law will exempt the new facility from being regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality, something the ACC says won’t happen. However, it is unclear in the text of the law which state agency will oversee its environmental impacts (the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t respond to our question).
In a recent letter to the EPA, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and more than 30 other lawmakers requested that the agency continue to regulate pyrolysis and gasification plants as incinerators. Additionally, they also urged the EPA to request more information from these facilities on their air pollution and climate impacts.
“Communities located near these facilities need to know what chemicals they are being exposed to, and they need the full protection that Congress intended the Clean Air Act’s incinerator standards to provide,” wrote the lawmakers.
The American Chemistry Council contends that chemical recycling plants take in plastics waste that is already sorted, and that regulating these facilities as solid waste facilities, with measures like odor and rodent controls, does not make sense. The ACC adds that, like other manufacturing facilities, chemical recycling plants would still be subject to air and water pollution and hazardous waste regulations.
Tangri, from GAIA, said that the U.S. should also follow in the footsteps of the EU and not count plastics to fuel as chemical recycling.
Overall, environmental advocates would prefer to see stronger measures taken to reduce plastic use and require that manufacturers take more responsibility for plastic packaging — a concept known as “extended producer responsibility.” Enck suggested that there be mandatory environmental standards for packaging similar to auto efficiency standards. “We really need to move to a refillable, reusable economy,” she said. “Do we need all these layers of packaging on a product? Do we need multi-material packaging?”
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“American collapse is 'hypercollapse,' made of bots and ‘fake news’ and hacked elections, not just demagogues and speeches, which are radicalizing people already left ignorant by failing education institutions and civic norms” (1)
A group of concerned climate scientists said in a recent wide-ranging peer-reviewed article: “In our view, the evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency: both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute” (2) . Despite this, the deep, decades-old, and frequently voiced concerns of the scientific community have been generally ignored (3-7).
The warnings recently have been accompanied by the confusion and unnecessary deaths in the covid pandemic, the increases in authoritarian rule threatening democracy in the United States and other countries, and the refusal of world leaders to deal with escalating climate disruption or with the presence of vast nuclear arsenals. The latter is now highlighted by Putin’s possibly civilization-ending invasion of Ukraine for which he threatens to trigger a holocaust.
All these events show something in common. They have jointly made crystal clear the utter failure of the educational system in the United States and most other rich countries to prepare people for the existential environmental threats that are consequences of the great acceleration – the recent surge in growth and technological capacity of the global human enterprise (8). As a single current example, how many “educated” people understand that the United States has been sinking vast amounts of money into “modernizing” its “nuclear triad” – its weaponry for fighting a nuclear war – thus increasing the odds of such a war, which would cause a terminal environmental collapse (9)?
A half century ago, when Joan Diamond was studying education, one of the core questions in the graduate curriculum was whether educational institutions should be designed to reflect the current society or should be vehicles for social change. In the face of ecological overshoot, increasing inequity, threats to democracy and civil rights (as evidenced by the Supreme Court ending Roe v Wade) and signs, we believe, of having lost our moral compass, it seems clear that in too many leading universities the former looks to be what is prevalent now.
It appears that most people don’t believe that a principal role of education should be to encourage social evolution to meet changing circumstances. To move schooling into that role there first needs to be discourse to determine what a healthy, sustainable society really needs, discourse that today is rare at best and that needs to be coupled with a clear vision of a compelling future, given the realities of the current human predicament.
One main reason for the lack of that discourse may be that the culture gap – the chasm between what each individual knows and the collective information possessed by society as a whole (10-12) – has never been larger and never more dangerous.
In the forager societies that were characteristic of the vast majority of human history, almost all adults understood how nearly everything “worked.” When PRE lived with the Inuit in 1952, every adult Inuit knew how komatiks (sleds) and igloos were constructed and seals were hunted, as well as the rest of their culture. Today in western culture none of us come remotely close to straddling the gap.
Could you describe the electronics that make a cellphone work or how an automobile is constructed from raw materials? Could most educated people even briefly describe crucial elements whose knowledge might put them on the survival side of the gap? Could they at least have some grasp of ecosystem services, the second law of thermodynamics, exponential growth, how the Nazis took over Germany, nuclear weapons and nuclear winter, or (in the U.S.) how the South “won” the Civil War? Would they be familiar with the biology of race and gender or the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists? Does any aspect of today’s educational system have the goal of seeing that everyone ends up learning about and pursuing throughout life the aspects of culture that would make them understand the foundations of sustainability?
It’s important to remember that public education was originally established as an agent of change. It was part of the institutionalization of western societies along with population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and separation of home from workplace. Public education was designed to provide the wage laborers the capitalist system demanded, workers who would be punctual and who could read and calculate for the increasingly industrialized world. It still fills that need.
“Schools too often are carefully designed to prepare people for adult work roles, by socializing people to function well (and without complaint) in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation or public office” (13). Public schooling was not designed originally to produce “educated” people per se (14, 15) or as a way of somewhat reducing the already growing culture gap. It was a benefit for the rich rentier capitalists who employed wage earners, whose own children were educated privately, often in religious schools. That pattern of education-for-employment has changed too little today (16), as documented by even most of the wealthy.
Hurricane Fiona makes landfall in Canada
A major reason for that is that flagship educational institutions, colleges and universities pay relatively little attention to newly critical educational needs created by the acceleration. They don’t focus a major part of their efforts or influence on pre-college learning on what adults need to know to function positively in an increasingly complex endangered civilization.
This failure is reflected down the school apparatus, which mostly does not begin to prepare children to deal even with those two changing systems in our society of prime personal interest: the legal and medical systems. Nor are most Americans given enough information to understand the nature and impacts of the hierarchical and inequitable structures of modern society and the current trend of steepening the hierarchy (17-20).
It is difficult to learn in school how possibly to soften the impacts of inequity in the face of a storm of disinformation concerning those impacts, some both quite subtle and persistent such as the myth that different human groups possess importantly different genetic capabilities (21). The task is made more difficult in some American jurisdictions in 36 states where there are government-imposed legal barriers to passing on pertinent information about race and racism to children (https://bit.ly/3xyo8RN).
The process of education itself has become a silo in western civilizations, within which curriculum design and implementation appear to be more important to specialists than content (22, 23). The content element in that silo generally reflects an Aristotelian approach to learning, which originally focused on the teaching of subjects that were thought to improve the intellectual and moral development of individuals (and, with industrialization, prepare them to be obedient wage slaves). It divides what is to be learned into separate “subjects” and at the college level into separate “departments” through which funds, faculty promotions and perks flow.
Students at all pre-college levels are generally expected to be educated, again following Aristotle, in age groups, apparently on the implicit assumption that all 10-year-olds have similar interests and capacities. That can be seen implicitly in education today, which lacking a clear involvement in the social dangers of the great acceleration, diverges from Aristotle and tends to view learning as something that ends with a certification at a certain age: high school diploma, bachelor’s or master’s degree, doctorate, or perhaps some post-doctoral training.
A doctorate in biology earned in 1957 (as Paul Ehrlich's was) would be close to useless to society today unless continually updated with learning. Most of today’s biological knowledge would be incomprehensible to Aristotle, should he suddenly reappear. Formal retraining throughout a career does occur in some areas (for instance, aviation, partially in medicine) but currency in a rapidly evolving world depends largely on individual initiative, ability to depart from past topics, and well-developed bullshit detectors (24).
The dramatic increase in the potential sources of education in the great acceleration – movies, radio, TV, the web, have been recognized by educators, as has been the need for passing on more kinds of “literacy” (25, 26). Leave it to the flexible Finns to recognize the serious consequences of the rigid “learn your subjects” approach to teaching. Finland is formalizing a new system of teaching: “In Phenomenon Based Learning" (PhenoBL) and teaching, holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects” (27, 28). There have been forays into this style of curriculum in the United States, but, none, to our knowledge, that have been adopted by school districts and states as the formal curriculum. There is observational evidence that we have moved in the opposite direction—one designed for standardized testing.
Learning falls behind
Starting with the need for literacy and numeracy for industrialization, the environmental demand for specific kinds of education has paralleled the great acceleration. But despite heroic efforts in a few areas such as the development of textbooks by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (29, 30), and a long interest in education in mathematics and its history (31) learning has fallen far behind need.
There are small colleges and departments that directly tackle these issues but they are not mainstream and are often marginalized. Just think, for instance, of the clear widespread ignorance of simple exponential growth illustrated by discussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and of demography in general.
Basic questions like what is education, what should be its purpose, and how should it be supported, should be major topics of concern, in colleges and universities as well as elementary and high schools.
But we can only touch on the basics here because of the immediate need for help from educational institutions both to close critical parts of the culture gap and to help mobilize civil society to deal with immediate existential threats to civilization. Educators need to provide leadership in explaining those threats in general, and right now because of Vladimir Putin, specifically to educate people to the world-ending possibilities of nuclear war.
Indeed one of the most critical parts of the culture gap is the large number of people who, since 1945, remain ignorant of the potential impact of such a war and believe that wars fought with nuclear weapons are “winnable.” This ignorance is partly explicable because of a general failure of schools and public education to inform citizens of the risks leaders have taken, the near misses that civilization has lived through by pure luck, and the now increasing odds of total disaster. But can we attribute the absence today, in the face of much more serious consequences, of the protests and teach-ins that rocked universities during the Vietnam war to that failure of education, or purely to the lack of a draft?
Able Archer 83
Ukraine soldiers in Eastern Ukraine.
Credit: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine
It’s sometimes said that considering nuclear wars is thinking about the unthinkable, but many specialists have spent lots of time doing just that. For instance, military planning for a “protracted” nuclear war in which the U.S. “prevailed” and for which the American nuclear triad should be upgraded was much discussed during the Reagan administration (32, 33) and as a result of the “Able Archer 83” incident.
Able Archer 83 was what some consider to have been a “near miss” in 1983 when Russians suspecting the regular NATO Able Archer maneuvers were a cover up for a sneak “first strike” nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Soviet forces began readying for a nuclear response, but the issue never reached Leonid Brezhnev before the Russians determined there was no coming attack. He, like many in the American military hierarchy and unlike some of his subordinates, persisted in the view that a nuclear war would be insane – and impossible to win.
If nothing else the Able Archer 83 incident underlines now how the fate of civilization rests precariously on personalities, ideologies, intelligence accuracy, misunderstandings, and many other features of human behavior and human cultures that make the very existence of weapons of mass destruction, nation states, and war itself increasingly problematic (11, 34, 35). But whether a “limited” nuclear war is possible is still discussed, even after the “Proud Prophet” war games long ago showed how unlikely it was to avoid escalation from use of “battlefield” weapons to complete strategic disaster (36-38).
After a period of relative quiet on the issue, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine has rekindled the debate, with at least on the political side, apparent great ignorance of the issues. The latest Pentagon budget, in which huge amounts of money are transferred to corporate oligarchs for that modernization of the useless and dangerous U.S. triad (9) suggests that such attitudes are alive and well at the higher levels of government in the United States. Vladimir Putin’s statements make it clear they are thriving among some in the Russian leadership as well.
Education systems around the world should be pressing to get people to understand what’s at stake with the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons, and not just because Putin threatens to use them. For example it seems certain that even today there are powerful people in the governments of India and Pakistan who believe nuclear weapon use is at least riskable and perhaps winnable (39), Should India and Pakistan have a nuclear exchange, it also seems likely civilization would perish (40).
And behind the now immediate nuclear threat is an array of other existential threats (41), including other weapons of mass destruction, knowledge of which lies on the far side of the culture gap and are not explained even to everyone enrolled in research universities.
One can learn important things from the state of those universities. Many of them, for instance, have business schools “places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves” (42). Money issues control virtually everything at universities as they do in most “modern” societies. Stanford University’s academic senate gave a great lesson in the need to change the financing of higher education by refusing to divest from the fossil fuel industry because some senators were getting research support from them. The best short summary of what’s wrong with universities we have seen is that they are “too busy oiling the wheels to worry about where the engine is going.” More or less the same is said here in a more amusing form.
There are of course many efforts out there to transform education—especially the work of pioneering individual faculty who would like to change the world even if their institutions remain mired in the 19th century. Stanford led there by establishing its Human Biology Program in 1971 and the Center for Conservation Biology in the Biology Department in 1984. There have been established other well-meaning programs to foster “social transformation” (including efforts to develop “social innovation curricula” in business schools), and some initiatives designed to deal with the fundamentals of the existential threats.
But a glance at the literature (e.g., (43-45) suggests changes in higher education even in rich countries are unlikely to be spearheaded by academics. Too many teachers themselves have little grasp of the nature or magnitude of the problems of growth mania, revealed by our species’ history (11). They don’t recognize how short is the time available to have a reasonable chance of solving the problems, or how early in school and public education dramatic changes to teach about them would be necessary. This is unsurprising since the teachers are, obviously, products of the broken system.
Meanwhile mainstream higher education persists in making things worse. Stanford ironically recently created an example of how not to catch up with Finnish middle schools educationally. Recognizing that climate disruption was a major concern and that “sustainability” was becoming a prominent buzzword, a move developed, especially among engineers and geologists, to establish a new School of Sustainability –originally labelled the School of Sustainability and Climate.
The idea was, of course, basically to raise money.
Academically it was silly from the start, simply because it retained or added more departmental and other anti-intellectual organization to the university, rather than re-examining the institution’s entire structure, its role in a dissolving civilization, and the consequences of its means of support. It’s worth a glimpse at the new school’s current structurewhich shows both its siloing and the near absence of understanding of the basic issues of sustainability.
For instance, the sine qua non of sustainability is humanely and equitably reducing the scale of the human enterprise, both the numbers of people and the average consumption per capita (46-48). As you can see there is not a hint of this in the new school’s structure and there are many hints of ignorance in its announcement. For instance the announcement says the school will “address the planet’s sustainability,” but Earth’s sustainability has never been thought to be even slightly in jeopardy (at least for the next few billion years). The social sciences division of the school will “discover the causes of sustainability challenges, innovate new solutions to these challenges.”
Of course the causes are already extremely well known – maybe the school could “innovate an old solution” and get the business school closed down (or at least it could hire writers who know English.) We could go on about things like how much more important humanities (absent from the school) are to sustainability than geophysics, but we’ll spare you. The Doerr school is a monument to what’s wrong with universities as civilization circles the drain, and analyzing its structure would be a valuable learning experience for freshmen wishing to understand how close we are to going down that drain.
On the other hand, obviously many non-pedants in civil society are deeply concerned and understand the need to shrink the scale of the human enterprise.
Many couples globally are choosing to stop at one child or go childless, steps in rich countries that are are major personal contributions to sustainability (49). And there are many organizations in civil society that “get it” – from ZPG in the old days to Growthbusters, the Post-Carbon Institute, Population Media Center, Global Conservation, and the Global Footprint Network today. And of course there’s the MAHB that probably does more than those other fine NGOs to engage broad civil society. It doesn’t just serve those who already understand the existential threats, but also those who wish to understand them better and develop ways to counter them.
The challenge is that scaling up these efforts, understanding the barriers, and converting their message into policy in the face of near boundless ignorance and organized denial, is not easy. But there is a lot of good stuff happening. Not at necessary scale. Too quiet. Sometimes too afraid. But sometimes not.
Despite the manifest flaws in education that will need to be corrected if there ever is to be a Civilization 2.0, there are things universities could do now if they ever are awakened from their slumber. Where is the modern day equivalent of the teach-ins of the 70s —now needed on nuclear weapons history and potential impacts of other doomsday weapons, on climate disruption, on the scale of the human enterprise and population imperatives, on the genetic disinformation on race and gender, on the need to modernize the constitution, on extinction and and loss of ecosystem services, on the demographic and biodiversity elements of pandemics, on the financialization of value and the requirement for wealth redistribution, on the ethics of borders and sharing the burdens of refugees, on the roots of human dominance in the evolution of empathy, and on dozens of other topics about which most “educated” Americans are clueless?
Where are the classes being canceled or suspended to make time for the development of new education attuned to the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced? Where are the university presidents to give intellectual leadership in the worst time of human history, a time when the potential ultimate war is being fought in Europe and for the first time a global civilization is teetering on the brink of collapse? Why are universities not loudly criticizing the media’s “news” focus on political maneuvering, crime, celebrity doings, sporting events, gasoline prices (without mentioning the need to get them higher), and keeping the economic cancer growing while virtually ignoring the existential threats? Where are the students demonstrating as their futures are being mortgaged further each day by unsustainable population growth and over-consumption (48)?
How many economics students organize protests over departments not teaching the obvious – that economists who think that population growth can continue indefinitely along with escalating universal wealth and consumption are daydream believers? One answer according to famed anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is that the overall cultural background in which the universities are embedded is inimical to leadership actions (50). In 2009 Sahlins suggested a part of the problem was the popularity of business courses. Could part of today’s more desperate problem be the overwhelming popularity of computer science?
Our current education system –right up to the university—is trapped in reflecting society and missing the imperative to change human culture. As such it drives rather than solves the problems facing us, especially as it is so largely financed by politicians, and worse yet corporations and rentier capitalists, and their own sadly mis-educated products (think again economics departments and business schools and add in law schools).
And as you can see, this system of support is loaded with pitfalls and contradictions.
But we think universities should still speak from the lens of progressive human values and ecological well-being—to try to create the educational base for a strong, sustainable society with more equity, laws that evolve with the acceleration and do not overweight originalism), and near-universal well-being as goals. It is clear to us that getting key parts of the culture gap closed is an essential task for civil society if it aspires to those goals, and thus for a modernized educational apparatus led by universities and perhaps a vastly scaled up MAHB-type civil society to nurture it..
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Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.
Joan Diamond is the Executive Director of Stanford University’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and of the Crans Foresight Analysis Nexus (FAN).
Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
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Dr. Ashley Gripper joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss how gardening and farming increase community healing and personal agency in Black communities and beyond.
Gripper recently received her Ph.D. from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and her new position is assistant professor at Drexel University’s Ubuntu Center on Racism, Global Movements, and Population Health Equity. She is also the founding organizer of Land Based Jawns.
She also talks about the historical roots of Black farming, and centering her Philadelphia community in all of her research and work.
The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.
Today's guest is Dr. Ashley Gripper who recently received her PhD from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and in her new position as assistant professor at Drexel University's boon to center on racism, global movements and population health equity. She is also the founding organizer of Land-based Jawns. Ashley is also a senior Agents of Change fellow. And before you listen to this podcast, I highly recommend you read her timeless essay "We don't farm because it's trendy, we farm as resistance for healing and sovereignty." The essay was by far our most read, our most shared, our most talked about from this program. And in this podcast she touches on many of the issues she talked about in the essay –about growing food as a tool to fight systemic oppression, and how gardening and farming hold spiritual and mental health benefits, and increases community healing and personal agency. Enjoy. So I am super excited to be joined by Ashley Gripper. Ashley, how are you doing today?
I am fantastic. So you know, in this season of life, I'm leaning into rest and part of my rest this week has been binge-watching Stranger Things. So I'm coming right off of an episode, or actually, I didn't even finish an episode. I was like, "I gotta pause it." But yeah, I'm feeling good. And I'm trying to replenish after being in grad school for the past seven years.
Excellent. And we're gonna get all into that. But first, where are you today? Where are you coming at us from?
I am in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That's my hometown. I'm in West Philly to be specific. And yeah, this is where I'm born and raised where my family is. And that's where I'm calling in from.
So you were part of our first cohort. And your essay, "We don't farm because it's trendy, we farm as resistance for healing and sovereignty", has been by far, our most read, our most shared, and our most discussed essay, it's not even close, to be honest. So I was wondering if you could just describe the response you got to the essay? What were some of the highlights? And how, if at all, Did it impact your work your career, your perspective, as you move forward after that?
Yeah, that essay, the whole process, you know, I had no idea what was going to how that article was going to be received, or, you know, what the aftermath would be. And the response was overwhelming. So as you know, I started writing that article, early, early 2020. And then we were all set to try and release it, I think sometime in March or April (it got pushed back a little bit) but then my dad passed away. So you know, that further delayed it. And then when I was finally ready to come back to it and add the final touches, it ended up getting released just before George Floyd was murdered. So I think what was happening in the country, in the world at the time, you know, the pandemic, also, all of those things that were happening at the same time really kind of, I think, amplified the response. Because the article, you know, we talked a lot about self-determination, about resistance, of various forms of oppression, I talked about healing, the healing that agriculture offers, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. And it seemed to resonate with way more people than I anticipated. I, you know, I must have received dozens and dozens of emails of people, you know, just really just saying like, "this is great work, thank you for doing it." And then also the response on social media was unimaginable. I had folks who are who I'm close with come up to me and who are also like in the agricultural black food space, be like, "I saw your article pop up on this page and this page and this page." It was, like I said, like it was it was unexpected for me. I couldn't have anticipated that that would have been the response. But I think part of that... that was the response because I poured so much of my heart and my spirit into it and drew on my experience, you know, my dad's experience the Philadelphia experience the black farming experience, I poured all of that into the article. And it really, when I look back, I feel like that was a catalyst in so many ways for where I am now and being able to like, have done like, I think, since that article released, I must have done 30 to 40 invited talks. I've done, you know, NPR podcasts, I've done. I don't know, I've just done a lot. And a lot of people, I think a lot of that is because the response to the article and folks really resonating with what I had to say.
Well, I'm so happy to hear that. And we do hold it up as kind of a model example of "if you're going to talk about your research, and weave in your personal experience, and you threw in a whole bunch of history and historical perspective." It was just it was beautiful. And we really debated. I don't know if you remember this. I mean, we debated on timing. And as you said, I think it was ironically, given all the pain that was going on, it was kind of the perfect storm of the perfect timing to have, have it be released.
Yeah. And I think a lot of what happened was people kind of felt themselves represented in a piece. And also it gave hope that like, hey, there is this, there's a way to like work through this. There's a way to hold each other. There's a way for us to care for ourselves and our community in the midst of, you know, so much tragedy. And here it here it is represented in this scientific, you know, blog or journal, what do you call it? What is EHN?, and I always get confused.
Yeah, you know, and I think that was... some of the responses that I saw that I really appreciated were like, just like, "yeah, that's what it is for us. You know, it's not about being trendy, is about what the power that comes from growing food." And I just think people saw themselves in this mainstream news media, and they, they felt a little bit of hope, maybe.
for sure. And the community you mentioned, so you are proudly from Philadelphia. I was wondering if you could tell me about when and how you became interested in this intersection of growing food there as a tool to fight systemic oppression? And what does that look like on the ground?
Yeah. So the interest really started when I first finished undergrad. I ended up working at this small nonprofit called the Urban Nutrition Initiative in Philadelphia. And that was really my introduction to food justice work. And, you know, I'm learning more, I'm absorbing everything all of the materials that the organization has put together, but then the opportunity presented itself to attend the Black Farmers Conference. So I attended that conference, I believe, in 2013. And that year, the keynote speaker, I think I talked about this in my article, the keynote speaker was Dr. Monica White, who is the author of Freedom Farmers, and also a professor of environmental justice at University of Wisconsin-Madison. And that was, as she spoke, and kind of brought in the history of Black farming, particularly in the South, she weaved all of these concepts together for me, and it was really the first time that I saw growing food as power, growing food as freedom growing food as community. And that's kind of where – I think the seeds haD been planted years ago, I didn't know – But I think that's where the seeds, like were really watered And you know, the sun started to come out. And from then on, I kind of really, really dove into the work. And then even decided that, oh, I could go back to school for this and like, use my quantitative skills and research skills in a way that supports food justice movement work. Did I answer all of your question?
Well, I was wondering what it looks like, what does that look like on the ground? Talk about using using farming, using growing food as a tool to fight systemic oppression, which I I've seen you mentioned that before. So when you're out there, what what does that look like?
Yeah, so my journey has been, it's been a diverse journey. So I started in the nonprofit kind of grassroots-ish space, transition into the academy. And while I was in grad school, throughout my time, I was always connecting with grassroots organizations, farming organizations, I was volunteering, trying to figure out how I can support this food council or how I can support you know, the agriculture plan for the city. So that's what it looked like while in the academy. But in 2020, there was also some, there was a lot that was happening in the world, but for me internally, so that is the year that I actually began to like, honestly kind of move full time into grassroots work and organizing and community building. And for me right now, what that looks like And what that's grown into is running this organization called Land-based Jawns that is a Philly-based organization that offers education and training to Black women and Black, non-binary and trans folks around gardening, safety and self defense, we do workshops on building and carpentry, so you know how to work with power tools, and also land-based living. So the whole focus of that work is around self and community healing, but also developing these real tactile skills that not only help us survive, but help us to thrive living in connection with the land. So for me, that's what the work looks like on the ground. There's also also do a good bit of policy and advocacy work with the city. We are just about to release the first urban agriculture plan for Philadelphia, there's a team of about six or seven of us that have been working on that for about three years now. And that, you know, that on the groundwork looks like making recommendations for how land gets distributed to growers, and how, you know, those growers are supportive once they have land and different things the city can implement in order to sustain the agricultural movement in the city. So that's just a little bit of what the on the ground work looks like, for me.
Can you explain what Land-based Jawns is? what does that name mean for us non-Philly folks?
Yeah. So, you know, it's kind of, I mean, it's hard and easy to explain at the same time. Joawns is a word that has been around infinity for as long as I can remember. And it pretty much means everything and anything. So, you know, like, let's say you're sitting on a couch with your, your family, and the remote is across the room, you could be like, "Yo, throw me that jawn," you know, so, but also, there have been, you know, when I was in high school, and growing up, there have been so many, like, different uses of jawns, I remember that it was like the trend to refer to people as jawns, um, you know, or you be like, I'm a jawn, and that's the part that's a little bit hard to explain. But, you know, putting it together, I kind of first heard, you know... we were when I was at the annual retreat with National Black Food and Justice Alliance. I remember folks saying like, "Oh, we land-based people, land-based this, land-based that." And then, you know, that's kind of when I was like, Oh, what about land-based jawns? like, you know, to represent the Philly folks. So that's kind of how the name came to be.
Thank you for that. So since you have just finished up your PhD, I was wondering, so you, obviously have been doing this community-centered research approach for a while. And I was wondering if it created any challenges along the way, since this has not always been the case in traditional academia to to foster this kind of approach?
Absolutely. The challenges were numerous. And most of my my biggest challenges were on the institutional side, not on the community side. I think since I already have such deep rootedness in my community, and trust there that there wasn't a whole lot of there weren't a whole lot of challenges on that side. But along the way, there were there were people who just didn't understand the vision didn't understand the approach or didn't necessarily agree with the approach or think the approach was necessary to do the research, particularly in public health. I think there's this hyper focus on like quantitative methods. And you know, is like study design controlling for, like, we need to control for all of the things so that we can isolate this particular exposure. And that way of thinking is really, like antithetical to the work that I do in the community and also academically. I think that... I think that there's an issue, there's a... how do I say this? So I know that that approach, you need to do research in that way for certain things – like let's say we're talking about diseases, infectious diseases, things like that – But for understanding health and understanding health holistically, I think that we need to be careful with how we try to parse out exposures. So what I really was trying to do was push my school, my department to be able to look at what's happening holistically: Okay, so urban agriculture is not just farming, it's not just the physical act of farming. It's also the the building of community, it's also skills building and job training, it's having your hands literally in the soil and the potential microbes that you're being exposed to. There's so many things that are related to agriculture, that can impact health. And I, my goal was not to like, figure out what, you know, what is the most impactful thing? Or what's one thing? How does one specific thing impact, you know, your outcome for this thing. So there was a lot of, I had, what I had to do is like, bring my school, bring my department along to understand what it is I was trying to do, and why I was not focusing necessarily on physical health, but instead mental health, spirituality, and agency, you know, in a public health program, there are some sometimes they're like, well, agency, what does that have to do with health? And then for me, I'm like, what doesn't agency have to do with health?
So can you expand about that a little bit. So both in your research and on the ground, it ties in more than just the nutritional aspects. So it's the spiritual to mental health, it's, as you mentioned, community healing, personal agency. Can you talk about how these are connected to food growing? you mentioned this a little bit. And perhaps some examples of how you've seen this in the communities you worked in, or maybe for yourself.
Yeah, so. So what I did, I'll just, I'll talk to you a little bit through my dissertation, because I think that the speaks to how I looked at these things. So in my first paper, I did a spatial analysis, looking at where community gardens and urban farms in Philadelphia are located in relationship to neighborhood demographics. So that paper, or that article, also involves a lot of historical analysis and historical review of what's happened in the country with Black farmers, what's happened in the city with urban growers and Black growers, and what's happened in the city with gentrification. So what I was what I saw, and what I found is that neighborhoods, that will black neighborhoods tend to have higher concentrations of community gardens, poor neighborhoods in the city tend to have concentrations of community gardens. And when you look at neighborhoods that are both Black and have higher concentrations of low-food access, they tend to have more community gardens as well. And this analysis was non-causal and non-temporal, but it seems to align with what community members have said, and that is that, you know, as neighborhoods are extracted from, as the resources are pulled out, community members come together to provide food for themselves, to care for themselves and to heal themselves. And I think what that first paper showed was that hmm, you know, even though this is non-causal, this does seem to affirm what folks have already said. So, in that paper, I was trying to start to build a case for collective agency and like how this is such an impactful, a big, I guess, product of urban agriculture, Black urban agriculture, too. And then the second paper, I was like, I need to ask people, I need to go directly to the people who are growing food and understand what they think the impacts are, instead of trying to say, these are the impacts based on like the literature that I've read. So that involves a series of focus groups with Black and white urban farmers in the city asking about the impacts like what they thought the impacts were on their health, holistically, spiritually, mentally, physically, and also what they thought the impacts were on community. And there were four major themes that emerged across those six focus groups. And that was that agriculture, urban agriculture, helps facilitate body and mind wellness, urban agriculture helps to deepen spirituality and spiritual relationships in the land. Urban agriculture is a demonstration of agency and power. And the last and biggest theme that appeared across the focus groups was urban agriculture is a demonstration of care and relationship building. So you know, though, as those themes started to emerge, I was like, "Oh, this all makes sense to me as somebody who who is a grower in the city." Then I started to transition that into a final paper and research project. And my goal with that project was to develop a scale that measures all of these things for urban Ag. Community. So through that work, and drawing on the themes from the focus group, drawing on Monica White's theoretical framework, and drawing from my own experience in interpersonal conversations, I was able to develop a scale that measures something called agricultural community power. So that's kind of like how an agricultural community power. And it encompasses land-based spirituality, it encompasses health and well-being, it encompasses community care and relationship building, as well, as well as a concept called Ubuntu, which means "I am because we are" and it's about the interdependence of humanity. So that scale and the focus group and the first paper honestly, is how I attempted to really understand the impacts of urban ag on spirituality, mental health and collective agency.
Just curious, when you talk to people that that spoke to you for this, was this something that they had consciously thought about? Or did you kind of spur this thinking like, oh, yeah, this this activity does make me feel good. It does connect me to my neighbors? Or was that something you think was already kind of top of mind?
I think it was a mix. So there were some people who, who came in, like, you know, and had really beautiful answers about how agriculture, like growing food was the first time that they like, for instance – I talked about this in the paper – there was one person who said that they never felt more, I guess more resilient, more confident, more grounded, in terms of their mental health, than they did when until they were growing food. And they compared, they were like, "oh, you know, I've been on medications, I've been in therapy. But growing food, by far has been the most impactful thing for my mental health." And that person had a very, like, clear answer. So you could tell like, this person had been thinking about these things. And then there were some people who were like, you know, I've never participated, or I've never... like younger folks, for instance, there was one person who I think maybe it was like, 20. It was like, "Yeah, I just love it. And I don't always think about it in these ways. But as I'm hearing these, like other people in the focus groups share, it's making me realize that it does these things for me as well." And I think that's part of the beauty of the focus group is that you, you know, sometimes we don't always have the words to articulate what it is we're feeling, thinking, or experiencing. And then in the focus group setting, sometimes people can, like offer an articulation of a concept that we are familiar with. Yeah, so that's, uh, it was, it was definitely a mix. There were some people, there were a lot of people who are like, "Yeah, we think about these things all the time." You know, there were like analogies of like, "when I see dragonflies that reminds me of my mother" or "when dragonflies come to me, that is my mother literally coming to me and speaking to me." So there were like, there was definitely a range of like how in depth people had engaged with these questions and ideas before the focus groups.
So to blow this up a little bit in your essay, you mentioned how discriminatory and predatory practices led to Black farmers and families losing I believe it was over 12 million acres in the US since 1920 over the last century. So can you kind of briefly outline the ways – I know this is a big question – but the ways in which this could and should be reversed or remedied, and if you're seeing any movement on that front?
Yeah, that is a big question. Um, yeah, reverse. I mean, whole this a whole thing... This is such a such a complex question, I think. So the first thing that comes to mind is supporting Black farmers and Black folks who currently have land to maintain and retain that land. So you know, I'm going through a situation in my family where I recently discovered that we have a lot of acreage of land. And it's, it's, you know, once it falls in the heirs property, it gets so much more complicated on how to keep the land what to do with it. So, you know, it's programs and support available to folks who are trying to hold on to their land and keep it and though some of those programs exist, not enough of them do. One program or legislation, I guess, that was brought up to help with that is the Justice for Black Farmers act. And the Justice for Black Farmers Act, as far as I know, was about helping Black farmers keep land, helping new farmers get land and there's like a third bucket that I'm forgetting. So you know, I'm not sure where that is. But I know that... I think there was some judge somewhere who maybe shot it down there. I don't know where that is. But I know there has been some controversy around the Justice for Black Farmers Act for sure. On the more local level, which I think is, you know, sometimes the easier way to affect change. And what we've been doing in Philadelphia is really... Sorry, let me slow down. We've been working on the urban agriculture plan. And there's a lot of language in there about helping people to get land. And we've also been doing organizing around sheriff sale and US Bank liens. So there are a lot of active community gardens in the city that are run by Black and Brown folks that are on lots that were neglected and overgrown and uses dump sites. And these farmers and growers transform those lots. But what ens up happening is that since those properties and many times were tax delinquent, they got sold, and were a part of the US.... Now they have US Bank liens on them. And the US Bank lien or the US, I'm not sure of the who who is doing what, but I know a lot of those lots are being threatened right now. So there is concern that the people who have maintained those lots for 5, 10, 15, 20 years, may lose them because they don't have the deeds or the property rights. So we're doing a lot of organizing around that, we're working with several City Council folks. And when I say we're, I'm part of a Food Policy Advisory Council in the city, and also Soil Generation. And Soil Generation is a coalition of Black and Brown growers doing advocacy and policy work, among other things around farming and agriculture. So that's kind of a little bit of what's happening on the local level. And, you know, in terms of like, how to reverse, you know, land loss and land theft truthfully, that's a big question. And it's one that I don't think, you know, I don't think anybody has a complete answer to. But, uh, you know, there's also talk of reparations and how reparations can support folks to get land, or hold onto land. And I think what it requires is, is more like collective organizing, and community organizing around these issues, and also political education around these issues. And a lot of people just don't even know, you know, or don't understand the importance and the power, and the self-determination that comes from being able to have land and grow food on on your own land.
So in keeping with this theme of the big questions, I neglected to ask you something, I've been asking everybody on the podcast, to this point, which is what is a moment or event that shaped your identity, it can be personal, professional.
Yeah, shaped identity, the first one that comes to mind is kind of, like, two events. But both related is, you know, I think about the passing of my mom, when I was in college, my senior year of college, that definitely shaped a lot of who I am, and the ways that I think about grief and relationships. And the second is the passing of my dad, which happened, you know, two years ago. And I, you know, this now, I feel like almost a completely different person, because of what I've had to learn, what I had to experience and the ways that I had... the ways that I was grown, that I was stretched and, you know, had to, I think to work through both of those deaths because my, my dad's death brought up a lot of grief that I didn't deal with from my mom's stuff. I had to go inward, and I had to go through a lot of therapy and go to the land honestly, the big part of how I ended up as an actual grower was because after my dad passed, a good friend of mine was like you need to come be on the farm with us. And there were so many lessons that I learned from the land, and the bees and the you know, the earthworms and all of the light that is within the farm that has transformed who I am and changed the way I think about you know, my relationship with other people, to change the way I think about interdependence and Ubuntu, and also change the way I think about our connection and responsibility to the Earth.
Thank you so much for that. It's really, really beautiful. So you have grown in more ways than just that you are, Congratulations on your new position at Drexel.
And what does it mean to you to continue your work in your hometown of Philadelphia? And what do you hope to do there?
Yeah, so for those who don't know, I was recently appointed as a tenure track assistant professor at Drexel School of Public Health, specifically with the Ubuntu center on racism, global movements and population health equity. And my appointment is primary in the community health and prevention department and secondary appointment and environmental and occupational health. I'm excited to span two departments and centers because I think my work is so interdisciplinary that it touches on so many different things. And I talked to you earlier about how I don't like the silos, I don't like how we're like, we got to isolate this exposure. And, you know, my work really is like, drawing on sociology, is drawing on epidemiology, environmental health is all of these things. And I think that honestly, Drexel feels like the perfect place to continue to do the work the way that I want to do it, the way that I think is most impactful for communities. And the fact that it's in Philadelphia, you know, that's just the icing on the cake. And the truth be told, I didn't look, I wasn't applying to positions outside of Philadelphia, like this is where I wanted to be. And the, you know, the center itself, very focuses on the interdependence of people, it's on Ubuntu, it's on, you know, how is your humanity wrapped up in my humanity, and by extension, your well-being wrapped up in my well-being. So I really appreciate the community center and collective approaches the Ubuntu Center has, and I think it's the perfect place to allow me to, to, I don't know, I'm like, I'm in this stage of like, brainstorming and visioning. But I have this vision of, you know, trying to do academic community partnerships differently. They, you know, institutions in Philadelphia, specifically, but other places have been really harmful to communities. And I am like, okay, how can we leverage the resources that the university has to do what the community wants and the community's needs. And not only that, not what we think the community needs, but what community members say they need. So I'm like envisioning the center, I'm like, what that looks like, I'm talking to my friends and comrades about how the work I do at the university can be impactful and align with what they're doing on the ground, and then also holding the truth that I'm both in the university and on the ground, right. So yeah, just like doing a lot of brainstorming about that. And I think that, I think that where I'm going to be is strategically the best place to do that kind of work in the way that I want to do it.
Excellent. You've spoken so beautifully today about the power of growing food and digging in the dirt. What would you, what would you tell somebody in a city or otherwise, but maybe especially in a city, who has never grown a thing? Who was interested in this and just maybe wants to get started in some way? What would what would you tell them?
That's a great question. And I don't even know if you know that I did this thing. But I would tell them to go to Coursera. And type in Black agricultural solutions to food apartheid, I did this extensive teach out as an introductory level for people who want to learn more about growing food particular in the city. I talked about the history, I talked about some of the research, but then at the end is really hands on, like, here's how you actually grow a thing, and here's how you don't just grow a thing for the sake of growing a thing, but actually build a relationship with the plants and the soil. So I would definitely recommend if you're interested in like just getting started, check that out. Because I also talk about how to do it in a city and how to reclaim a vacant lot and you know, use that for the purposes of supporting your community. So yeah, that is called again, it's on Coursera that's c o u r s e r a, I think that .com or .org. And the Teach-out itself is called Black Agricultural Solutions to Food Apartheid.
perfect, I did not know that.Y ou had a ready made answer. The materials are out there. So actually, this has been so much fun. And now I have some I have some light-hearted questions. So before my last question, I have three rapid-fire questions where you can just answer with one word, or a quick phrase just quick in-and-out. So the first one is an album or artist I've been listening to lately is
Ah, I'll give you one song: Jamila Wood's "Holy."
The best vegetable to eat right after picking it is
Sungold cherry tomatoes
Cats or dogs?
Actively create trying to build a home that is will support a dog. Yeah, so my partner and I are planning to get a dog in a couple of months. So we're like trying to figure that out.
Yes, it's a commitment. We have a new pup from the shelter who's being very, very sweet today, but they can be a challenge. They can definitely be a challenge. So Ashley, what is the last book that you read for fun?
For fun? Come on. Now, you know, I just finished a PhD. Um, for fun, I'm still working my way through "Children of Virtue and Vengeance," is the second book in the Children of Blood and Bones series. That's my kind of like fiction book. And the last book I opened. That I opened for like free-time fun is called "Of Water and Spirit," I believe, and it's by Malidoma Patrice Somé, who is, uh, I think – I might get this wrong– I think he might be from the Congo. But the book is about like spiritual practices connecting to land and how that has African origins despite... how that is inherently African, despite kind of like, you know, more Western religious trying to encourage people to separate from those traditional practices.
Awesome. So Ashley, this has been so much fun. You were you were the last fellow I had to track you down. And you were frankly, one of the ones I was most excited, excited to speak to. So thank you so much for doing this today.
Absolutely. Brian, this was awesome. Thank you.
All right. That's all for this week, folks. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Ashley. I know I did.
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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.
“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 Magazine
Scenes 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 Magazine
Residents 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.
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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.
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