Officials: Plant a plus for valley

SHADYSIDE — After the public had a chance to weigh in on a proposal to build an ethane cracker plant in Belmont County last week, officials who have been working to make the project a reality still believe its potential economic benefits far outweigh its possible impact on the environment.

Mike Chadsey, director of public relations for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, was present for a public hearing on the matter Tuesday. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency hosted that session at Shadyside High School to hear comments about a draft air pollution permit-to-install for the facility. OEPA representatives outlined the project, explaining how the plant would turn ethane into ethylene for plastics manufacturing and what emissions the plant might release, before taking questions and hearing testimony.

Speaking on behalf of the OOGA’s 2,000 member companies, Chadsey said he strongly supports the project and the “thousands of jobs and billions in economic investment and growth it will bring to the entire area.”

“Tonight we heard some comments from those who oppose the project of the F.U.D. factor variety, which is fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Chadsey said Tuesday. “While misleading comments earn headlines, they do nothing to advance the well-being of folks in this community. Plastics are not the evil they were made out to be this evening. Plastics enhance the human condition.”

Belmont County Commissioners J.P. Dutton and Mark Thomas expressed similar reactions following the hearing, as did county Port Authority Director Larry Merry.

Dutton testified Tuesday evening on behalf of the project, noting that he has heard broad support for the planned plant from the people who would be most affected by it — those who would work in or around the plant and those who would live nearby.

“I do trust in the process,” Dutton said regarding OEPA’s examination of the plans for the facility and the agency’s ability to determine whether the plant would meet state and federal standards for safety and emissions.

He added that he has referred many questions from the public to OEPA or the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, because those agencies are well versed in state and federal laws that would govern construction and operation of the plant. He added he was pleased that the OEPA representatives on hand Tuesday were able to provide fact-based answer to the questions that were raised. Dutton noted that he has some personal experience working with regulatory agencies, stemming from his time working with the Department of Energy prior to taking office, and that experience makes him confident that their evaluation of the cracker plan will be thorough and complete, using the latest research and technology.

He said the companies proposing the development, PTT Global Chemical of Thailand and Daelim Industrial Co. of South Korea, have been “very thoughtful and deliberative” and that he has left his interaction with them feeling confident. He said nothing about his contacts with the companies has given him cause for pause or concern.

Dutton added that the projected emissions from the plant are well within acceptable standards. He noted that plans call for the facility to release less pollution than many of the more traditional industrial sites — such as steel mills and power plants — have in the past.

Meanwhile, Thomas said he was glad many perspectives about the project were heard Tuesday evening.

“I was happy to see the EPA’s public hearing well-attended by parties for and against the ethane cracker plant,” he said. “We have to always respect both sides of an issue, and that is the primary purpose of why Ohio law requires these permit public hearings.”

But Thomas said he remains confident the project would be a positive addition to the Ohio Valley, despite concerns that were aired during the hearing.

“With all due respect to those against the project, I still do not have or have seen fact-based arguments as to the full negative effects of this plant. Moreover, this Ohio Valley has had manufacturing in it for well over 100 years, and that manufacturing base has raised families, built and fueled this country and provided a decent economy all told.

“We can make an argument against any manufacturing plant, and that is why we have a strict set of laws and regulations that govern plants like this proposed one,” Thomas continued. “The Ohio EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, (Ohio Department of Transportation) and ODNR have been to the table since day one, and PTT has been very open and honest with its proposals and studies. I feel very strongly secure and trust the Ohio EPA in knowing how to handle this permit and all that goes with it.”

Thomas, who will leave office at the end of the year, stressed that he wants the best for Belmont County and the entire Ohio Valley.

“This is a ‘game-changer’ project for the county and the valley, and while I want it operating in a safe, lawful manner, I too want all of the job opportunities it will bring for our youth and our future,” he said.

Like the commissioners, Merry also expressed a lot of confidence in PTT and Daelim’s plans and in the ability of state and federal agencies to properly regulate the facility. He also said some of those who spoke in opposition Tuesday or protested against the plan may not realize the role products like those the plant would produce play in their daily lives.

“Anybody would be a fool not to be in favor of cleaner air and cleaner water,” Merry said. “But we all need the ability to live our lives and provide for our families.”

He pointed out that the signs the protesters posted and carried outside the high school were made of plastic, and that the vehicles they drove to the site are filled with plastic parts. Although he believes the protesters had good intentions, he interpreted their message, in part, as “do as we say, not as we do.”

Merry also noted that many who spoke against the project Tuesday do not live or work in the local region. Instead, they represented organizations such as the Sierra Club and acknowledged that they make a habit of appearing at OEPA hearings to oppose such projects. He said some of them were “just on their EPA tour.”

“No project would satisfy them,” he said.

While he added that it also was true that some representatives of organized labor who spoke in favor of the project came from distant cities, such as Columbus, those organizations do represent thousands of individuals who live and work in the Upper Ohio Valley. He believes those who would be most affected by the plant are those whose input should be most valued.

Merry does not live in Belmont County himself, but he said he does live near gas and oil sites and works closely with the industry on a regular basis. Merry lives on a dairy farm in Muskingum County, and he said there are older production wells on and around his property as well as three disposal wells within about 2.5 miles of his farm. He noted that his son works in the industry and wears a monitor every day to alert him if radiation is present at a work site. Merry said this is a common-sense precaution, much like all the rules and regulations that govern the industry.

According to Merry, the earth releases many of the same chemicals and compounds that would be emitted by the cracker plant if it were built. And there are many nearby sources of such pollutants that he said most people don’t consider, such as Interstate 70 that bisects Belmont County. He said the cars and trucks that travel that corridor release emissions around the clock.

Merry said he knows PTT and Daelim have been working hard to make sure their plans comply with all regulations and that he is “very comfortable” with this project.

“We’re going to have a very safe situation here … ,” he said. “Hopefully this cracker will make this valley a better place for the average ‘Joe or Susie Citizen’ to be able to provide for their family and to live a good life. It will pay for lots of baseball gloves and dance lessons.”

PTT spokesman Dan Williamson said despite the fact that some people spoke against the project Tuesday, the feedback he has heard about the companies’ plans has been “overwhelmingly positive.” He said that was reflected during the hearing in comments from labor organizers such as Ginny Favede of Project BEST and local government officials, including Dutton and Mead Township Trustee Ed Good.

“We heard a diverse chorus of people from both sides of the river who are very excited about the project,” Williamson said. “That is what we have consistently heard from the community since people started talking about the project.”

Williamson also complimented the OPEA officials who conducted the hearing.

“The EPA has been extremely professional in how they’ve been dealing with this … ,” Williamson said, terming the agency a “class act.”

“It was really nice to hear a robust discussion of the project,” he added. “PTTGC and Daelim appreciate everybody who came out. It was a long night, a cold night. The fact that some 140 people come out to talk about the project from a variety of perspectives was healthy.”

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