In 2012, a battle between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania was underway. Politicians and businesses from each state were eagerly campaigning for the opportunity to host Royal Dutch Shell’s “world-class” petrochemical facility. The facility in question was an ethane cracker, the first of its kind to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. In the end, Pennsylvania’s record-breaking tax incentive package won Shell over, and construction on the ethane cracker plant began in 2017.
Once completed, the ethane cracker will convert ethane from fracked wells into 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year.
Shell’s ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA. Image by Ted Auch, FracTracker.
Aerial support provided by LightHawk.
Ohio and West Virginia, however, have not been left out of the petrochemical game. In addition to the NGL pipelines, cryogenic plants, and fractionation facilities in these states, plans for ethane cracker projects are also in the works.
In 2017, PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) put Ohio in second place in the “race to build an ethane cracker,” when it decided to build a plant in Belmont County, Ohio.
But first, why is the petrochemical industry expanding in the Ohio River Valley?
Fracking has opened up huge volumes of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Fracked wells in these states extract methane, which is then transported in pipelines and used as a residential, industrial, or commercial energy source. The gas in this region, however, contains more than just methane. Classified as “wet gas,” the natural gas stream from regional wells also contains natural gas liquids (NGLs). These NGLs include propane, ethane, and butane, and industry is eager to create a market for them.
Investing in plastic is one way for the industry to subsidize the natural gas production, an increasingly unprofitable enterprise.
Major processing facilities, such as cryogenic and fractionation plants, receive natural gas streams and separate the NGLs, such as ethane, from the methane. After ethane is separated, it can be “cracked” into ethylene, and converted to polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The plastic is shipped in pellet form to manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, where it is made into a variety of plastic products.
By building ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley, industry is taking advantage of the region’s vast underground resources.
PTTGC ethane cracker: The facts
PTTGC’s website states that the company “is Thailand’s largest and Asia’s leading integrated petrochemical and refining company.” While this ethane cracker has been years in the making, the company states that “a final investment decision has not been made.” The image below shows land that PTTGC has purchased for the plant, totaling roughly 500 acres, in Dilles Bottom, Mead Township.
- 700,000 tons of high density polyethylene (HDPE) per year
- 900,000 tons Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
HDPE is a common type of plastic, used in many products such as bags, bottles, or crates. Look for it on containers with a “2” in the recycling triangle. LLDPE is another common type of plastic that’s weaker and more flexible; it’s marked with a “4.”
The ethane cracker complex will contain:
- An ethylene plant
- Four ethylene-based derivatives plants.
- Six 552 MMBtu/hour cracking furnaces fueled by natural gas and tail gas with ethane backup
- Three 400 MMBTU/hr steam boilers fueled by natural gas and ethane
- A primary and backup 6.2 MMBtu/hour thermal oxidizer
- A high pressure ground flare (1.8 MMBtu/hour)
- A low pressure ground flare (0.78 MMBtu/hour)
- Wastewater treatment systems
- Equipment to capture fugitive emissions
- Railcars for pygas (liquid product) and HDPE and LLDPE pellets
- Emergency firewater pumps
- Emergency diesel-fired generator engines
- A cooling tower
Impacts on air quality
The plant received water permits last year, and air permits are currently under review. On November 29, 2018, the Ohio EPA held an information session and hearing for a draft air permit (the permit can be viewed here, by entering permit number P0124972).
The plant will be built in the community of Dilles Bottom, on the former property of FirstEnergy’s R.E. Burger Power Station, a coal power plant that shut down in 2011. The site was demolished in 2016 in preparation for PTTGC’s ethane cracker. In 2018, PTTGC also purchased property from Ohio-West Virginia Excavating Company. In total, the ethane cracker will occupy 500 acres.
Table 1, below, is a comparison of the previous major source of air pollution source, the R.E. Burger Power Station, and predictions of the future emissions from the PTTGC ethane cracker. The far right column shows what percent of the former emissions the ethane cracker will release.
Table 1: Former and Future Air Emissions in Dilles Bottom, Ohio
|Pollutant||R.E.Burger Power Station
PTTGC Ethane Cracker
Percent of former emissions
|CO (carbon monoxide)||143.33||544||379.5%|
|NOx (nitrogen oxides)||1861.2||164||8.81%|
|SO2 (sulfur dioxide)||12719||23||0.18%|
|PM10 (particulate matter, 10)||179.25||89||49.65%|
|PM2.5 (particulate matter, 2.5)||77.62||86||110.8%|
|VOCs (volatile organic compounds)||0.15||396||264000%|
As you can see, the ethane cracker will emit substantially less sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxides compared with the R.E. Burger site. This makes sense, as these two pollutants are associated with burning coal. On the flip side, the ethane cracker will emit almost four times as much carbon monoxide and 263,900% more volatile organic compounds (percentages bolded in Table 1, above).
In addition to these pollutants, the ethane cracker will emit 38 tons per year of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS), a group of pollutants that includes benzene, chlorine, and ethyl chloride. These pollutants are characterized by the EPA as being “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.”
Finally, the ethane cracker is predicted to emit 1,785,043 tons per year of greenhouse gasses. In the wake of recent warnings on the urgent need to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and National Climate Assessment, this prediction is highly concerning.
While these emission numbers seem high, they still meet federal requirements and nearly all state guidelines. If the ethane cracker becomes operational, pollutant monitoring will be important to ensure the plant is in compliance and how emissions impact air quality. The plant will also attract more development to an already heavily industrialized area; brine trucks, trains, pipelines, fracked wells, compressor stations, cryogenic facilities, and natural gas liquid storage are all part of the ethane-to-plastic manufacturing process. The plastics coming from the plant will travel to facilities in the U.S. and abroad to create different plastic products. These facilities are an additional source of emissions.
Air permitting does not consider the full life cycle of the plant, from construction of the plant to its demolition, or the development associated with it.
As such, this plant will be major step back for local air quality, erasing recent improvements in the Wheeling metropolitan area, historically listed as one of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the country. Furthermore, the pollutants that will be increasing the most are associated with serious health effects. Over short term exposure, high levels of VOCs are associated with headaches and respiratory symptoms, and over long term exposure, cancer, liver and kidney damage.
In addition to air quality impacts, ethane cracker plants also pose risks from fires, explosions, and other types of unplanned accidents. In 2013, a ruptured boiler at an ethane cracker in Louisiana caused an explosion that sent 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air. Three hundred workers evacuated, but sadly there were 167 suffered injuries and 2 deaths.
While researching Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, FracTracker worked with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn about emergency planning around the petrochemical industry. Emergency planners map out two and five mile zones around facilities, called emergency planning zones, and identify vulnerabilities and emergency responders within them.
With this in mind, the map below shows a two and five-mile radius around PTTGC’s property, as reported by Belmont County Auditor. Within these emergency planning zones are the locations of schools, day cares, hospitals, fire stations, emergency medical services, hospitals, and local law enforcement offices, reported by Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data.
The map also includes census data from the EPA that identifies potential environmental justice concerns. By clicking on the census block groups, you will see demographic information, such as income status, age, and education level. These data are important in recognizing populations that may already be disproportionately burdened by or more vulnerable to environmental hazards.
Finally, the map displays environmental data, also from the EPA, including a visualization of particulate matter along the Ohio River Valley, where massive petrochemical development is occurring. By clicking on a census block and then the arrow at the top, you will find a number of other statistics on local environmental concerns.
Emergency planning zones for Shell’s ethane cracker are available here.
Within the 5 mile emergency planning zone, there are:
- 9 fire or EMS stations
- 17 schools and/or day cares
- 1 hospital
- 6 local law enforcement offices
Within the 2 mile emergency planning zone, there are:
- 3 fire or EMS stations
- 7 schools and/or day cares
- No hospitals
- 3 local law enforcement offices
Sites of capacity, such as the fire and EMS stations, could provide emergency support in the case of an accident. Sites of vulnerability, such as the many schools and day cares, should be aware of and prepared to respond to the various physical and chemical risks associated with ethane crackers.
The census block where the ethane cracker is planned has a population of 1,252. Of this population, 359 are 65 years or older. That is well above national average and important to note; air pollutants released from the plant are associated with health effects such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, to which older populations are more vulnerable.
PTTGC’s ethane cracker, if built, will drastically alter the air quality of Belmont County, OH, and the adjacent Marshall County, WV. Everyday, the thousands of people in the surrounding region, including the students of over a dozen schools, will breathe in its emissions.
This population is also vulnerable to unpredictable accidents and explosions that are a risk when manufacturing products from ethane, a highly flammable liquid. Many of these concerns were recently voiced by local residents at the air permit hearing.
Despite these concerns and pushback, PTTGC’s website for this ethane cracker, pttgcbelmontcountyoh.com, does not address emergency plans for the area. It also fails to acknowledge the potential for any adverse environmental impacts associated with the plant or the pipelines, fracked wells, and train and truck traffic it will attract to the region.
With this in mind, we call upon PTTGC to acknowledge the risks of its facility to Belmont County and provide the public with emergency preparedness plans, before the permitting process continues.
If you have thoughts or concerns regarding PTTGC’s ethane cracker and its impact on air quality, the Ohio EPA is accepting written comments through December 11, 2018. We encourage you to look through the data on this map or conduct your own investigations and submit comments on air permit #P0124972.
Written comments should be sent to:
Ohio EPA SEDO-DAPC, Attn: Kimbra Reinbold
2195 Front St
Logan, OH 43138
(Include permit #P0124972 within your comment)
By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist