Eyes wide open: The cons, and pros, of a big petrochemical plant
There are trade-offs to living in the shadow of a petrochemical plant.
The tax revenue can help fund schools and public safety services. The plant may employ generations of residents and keep contractors, from plumbers to electricians, hopping. A thriving plant can keep the hotels booked, the restaurants full and retailers busy.
But those living closest to the plant must contend with flares that light up the sky, noises that can rattle the house, hypersensitive security guards, the possibility of pollution and the risk of explosions that can level houses and snuff out lives.
This was the balanced picture of life in a petrochemical community that the Post-Gazette’s Anya Litvak provided in a two-part series last Sunday and Monday. During the winter, she and photographer/videographer Andrew Rush traveled to St. Charles and Ascension parishes in Louisiana, the latter alone is home to 32 plants, so they could report on what Beaver County residents can expect from the $6 billion ethane cracker and petrochemical plant Shell plans to build there.
In addition to two main stories chronicling the pros and cons of the parishes’ major industry, the project included three important sidebars — “How to Stay Safe Near a Chemical Plant,” “How to Track Health Impacts” and “How to Talk to Shell,” a big player in Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, too. It was important to gather the impressions, observations and experiences of people directly affected by the industry. Locally, all we have so far are the promises by Shell and economic-development officials and the concerns of the plant’s opponents.
In the towns of Norco and Geismar, Ms. Litvak and Mr. Rush found residents happy to have the employment and tax revenue and largely resigned to the risks. Of course, the more one benefits from the plant, the more sanguine about the danger one may be. “If it’s my time, it’s my time,” said Barbara Dixon, a third-generation petrochemical company retiree whose home was rocked by an explosion in 1988 before she and her husband, Randy, had a chance to move into it.
Candid communication is key to a productive company-community relationship. By and large, Louisiana residents and officials said the chemical companies are good neighbors, who are upfront when they can be and quick to address problems when they occur. But as Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said, that doesn’t obviate the need for vigilance or, if the company falls short in some area, correction.
Much of this should sound familiar to Beaver County residents, or at least those old enough to remember the era of thriving mill and mine. Those enterprises also supported entire communities but brought pollution, the risk of explosion and other problems. Today, with the right planning and regulation, Beaver County will be better poised to leverage the benefits and minimize the risk than it ever was during the heyday of coal and steel.
As part of that planning process, county officials and community representatives might want to make their own trip to St. Charles and Ascension parishes and gather their own insights into how to manage the petrochemical industry. They should go with an open mind — and book their hotel rooms in advance.