Taking on Climate Change and Petrochemicals in the Ohio River Valley
When it comes to the fossil fuel industry, we've all heard the promises before: new jobs, economic growth and happier communities, all thanks to their generosity and entrepreneurial spirit.
If you're struggling or there aren't a whole lot of other options for work, it can all sound glowing and great.
But what they always fail to mention is that their business damages ecosystems, drives climate change, and fills our air and water with dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals. Which all have a way of transforming lives and communities for the long-term and in ways that don't exactly make great PR.
We know this because we've seen the same tragic story again and again: fossil fuels and petrochemicals causing disastrous health outcomes for normal Americans just trying to live their lives.
In particular, in southern Louisiana along an 85-mile corridor of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, petrochemical plants are causing some of the nation's highest cancer rates. There are important lessons to be learned from this area, infamously dubbed "Cancer Alley." Especially as the fossil fuel industry plans to invest more than $200 billion in new petrochemical facilities across the U.S. in the coming years.
To understand this issue, it's worth a quick recap on petrochemicals and the problems they create. What are petrochemicals, how are they used, and what problems can they cause? Read on for answers.
The Truth About Petrochemicals
Put simply, the term "petrochemical" encompasses several different chemical compounds derived from fossil fuels, most commonly oil and natural gas. These chemicals are produced by applying extreme temperatures and pressures to the fossil fuel used in order to extract them. How extreme? We're talking temperatures of over 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and pressures of over 1,000 pounds per square inch (PSI).
And what is all this heat and pressure for? In essence, petrochemicals are used to create plastics, dyes, fertilizers and other synthetic compounds for various industries.
You may be asking yourself, "So what? What's the big deal here? Why do I need to worry about all this stuff?"
The answer is simple: If you're concerned about climate change and human health, you need to worry about petrochemicals.
The truth is, there's no way to produce these compounds without burning an incredible amount of fossil fuels. More investment in petrochemical facilities means more climate change from multiple sources, and critically, more plastics.
Today, a lot of petrochemical investment is going into to building multiple ethane cracker plants. These plants separate ethane from natural gas through the heat and pressure process described above. Plants then use it to create ethylene, one of the major building blocks used in making plastics. Not only does this process involve burning fossil fuels, but the end result is another kind of pollution.
Increasing investment in these facilities will not only deepen our reliance on fossil fuels; it'll also increase the amount of plastics that end up in our oceans—at a time when we should instead be concentrating on alternatives like clean energy.
Yet, the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries keep finding ways to lock us into their products and business. And the story only gets more frustrating from there. Because beyond even the threat they pose to our climate and the future health of the planet, petrochemical facilities are a significant danger to human health.
We already know the threats to regional watersheds from hydraulic fracturing (fracking), including soil erosion, groundwater pollution, and drinking water contamination. But we should also recognize that the danger doesn't stop once natural gas leaves the ground. For example, multiple studies have shown that petrochemical facilities that use natural gas expose employees—as well as surrounding communities—to multiple toxins that are incredibly damaging to their health.
The results are clear. Research shows that people living and working in and near petrochemical facilities can have higher rates of cancer, diabetes, various skin conditions, respiratory problems and other life-altering diseases. In some cases, rates of toxic chemicals and carcinogens found among people living by plants have been as high as three times the national average.
So, what can we learn from all of this beyond the fact that this industry is bad for our bodies and our planet? Here are a few key takeaways:
1. The Industry Knows It's Causing Harm
In multiple communities along Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," these problems have gotten so big that the petrochemical industry has issued buyouts for residents' homes. In some ways that could sound like a kind of victory, as families may have the ability to relocate. But what we know is that the damages caused have been so significant that, even if they move, people will likely be dealing with ongoing health issues for the rest of their lives.
Moreover, as their friends, neighbors, and relatives have gotten sick and even died, people in Cancer Alley and similar areas are left dealing with not only a loss of life, but also, the loss of community. Even so, the interests behind petrochemical investment keep pushing forward. With one hand they offer a too-late "solution," and with the other, ever-more money to keep harming people and the planet.
2. These Damages Can Be Exacerbated by Natural Disasters Such as Floods
If it's not bad enough that these facilities release dangerous pollutants, some plants are also creating "pollution dumps" following major rainfall events storms and floods, putting surrounding communities at even greater risk.
During power outages or flooding at plants, some safety features may turn off without warning. If operations are not shut down quickly or efficiently enough, the result can be increased pollutants entering the air. Plus, flooding can wash even more pollution into nearby lakes, rivers, and even groundwater.
And as climate change has actually been shown to make storms more frequent and severe, these risks will likely only get worse as time goes on.
3. There's Legal Precedent for Fighting Fracking
All of his sounds terrible, we know, but we do have some good news. The (super) simple version of how fracking works is that companies force chemicals into the ground at such high pressures that it cracks the Earth's crust, releasing gas trapped below. Companies can only frack on land where they own the legal right to what's under the ground (known as "mineral rights"). The danger is that the cracks they make can spread and allow toxic chemicals to leach into soil and groundwater far beyond the fracking site.
Now the good news. In a recent court decision, Pennsylvania judges ruled that companies have to contain these cracks to avoid trespassing on other properties where they do not possess mineral rights. This sets a powerful precedent to make the case that mineral rights in one area should not mean that fracking companies and their partners can pollute or alter ecosystems with abandon. More importantly, this victory in the courts should increase momentum for other legal action against polluters and the broader fossil fuel industry.
4. Organized Communities Have the Power to Fight Back
Here's an infuriating fact: the fossil fuel industry often actively seeks to work in poorer communities because they know wealthier ones have the resources and will to fight them. The wealthy interests behind these investments don't want these toxic chemicals in their own backyard – but yours will do just fine.
Environmental injustice has a long history in this country. Chemical plants and other toxic facilities have always been built in modest-income communities and, especially, communities of color.
But there's good news here too.
You see, we know that there is power in community action. When people stand together and work across boundaries to fight for change, their collective action can be a powerful force. Those buyouts we described in Cancer Alley? They happened because people in those communities joined forces to fight together for compensation.
Communities all over that 85-mile stretch of Louisiana are still fighting the good fight. They're calling for reductions in emissions, mandatory monitoring systems, and improved safety features and management.
Change is hard. But it's also very possible. And we believe this fight is winnable.
Taking on Petrochemicals in the Ohio River Valley
We can't give up on the fight to clean up the petrochemical corridor of Louisiana. We also can't ignore the lessons we've learned there.
Right now, the petrochemical industry is eyeing the Ohio River Valley—a region spanning southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, West Virginia and east Kentucky—as a site for massive investments in new facilities and ethane cracker plants. We can't let this region turn into a second Cancer Alley.
The fight has already begun. Right now, The Climate Reality Project is mobilizing communities, organizations, activists, and policymakers across the region to stand up to oppose these developments and protect people and our planet.
And if you're reading this, we need your help!
If you live in the Ohio River Valley, in particular, there are many ways you can take action:
- Join a local Climate Reality chapter;
- Attend one of our upcoming activist trainings;
- Speak up to oppose these plants at a public hearing; or
- Talk to your friends and family about this danger to their health and climate – and share how they can join you in fighting back.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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