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SOURCE: Yale e360

DATE: March 21, 2019

SNIP: Pittsburgh is a city on the upswing, rebounding this century from its rustbelt past by developing more innovative sectors such as health care, education, and technology. Uber is testing its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon University is home to a world-renowned Robotics Institute. And the city made an aggressive bid for Amazon’s HQ2, which the mayor viewed as key to moving the Steel City beyond its roots in heavy industry.

Progress toward a cleaner, post-industrial future is not linear, however. Although the air in Pittsburgh has dramatically improved from the days when it was one of America’s most polluted cities, it still contains high levels of hazardous pollutants. The rise of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, now more than a decade old, has exacerbated regional air quality problems.

Now, Pittsburgh and the surrounding area are embracing a new wave of industry tied to the fracking boom in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Nothing better embodies this surge than a massive, $6 billion ethane cracker currently being built 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh by Shell Chemical Appalachia, a subsidiary of the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. The facility will process huge quantities of natural gas and natural gas liquids from the prolific Marcellus and Utica shales and turn them into the building blocks of plastic. The plastic pellets produced by “cracking” ethane molecules will then be sold to manufacturers producing consumer and industrial products such as plastic bags, packaging, automotive parts, and furniture.

When it comes online in 2021, Shell’s ethane cracker will also add significantly to air pollution in western Pennsylvania, becoming the region’s largest source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful gases emitted by solids or liquids, including combusted fossil fuels. The facility will also emit substantial amounts of nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), fine particulate matter, and other hazardous air pollutants, the Clean Air Council says. All of these have been linked to an increased risk of respiratory problems such as asthma, as well as to cardiovascular effects and a heightened risk of cancer.

“Employment in western Pennsylvania has never been better,” says Ken Broadbent, business manager at Steamfitters Local 449. “Natural gas is going to be bigger than the steel industry back 30 or 40 years ago. There’s 50 years to 100 years of natural gas in this tri-state region. This thing is not going away.”

Asked if he is concerned about air pollution from the plant, Broadbent acknowledged the threat, but said the economic opportunities are too important.