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Ohio Valley environmental tour a 'real eye-opener'

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name for polyethylene pellets used to make plastics, the organizations that assisted in organizing the tour and the affiliation of Ned Ketyer. 

Ned Ketyer, a Peters Township pediatrician, appreciated the five-hour excursion along the Ohio River.

“This tour has been a real eye-opener,” he said Friday afternoon. “Look out the window and what you see should be beautiful, should be pristine.

“You see areas that aren’t green. You see a lot of damaged roads and probably a lot of damaged lives for people brave enough to live there.”

Ketyer, a leader with the environmental support group Climate Reality Project and a board member of the Southwest Environmental Health Project, was lamenting what he regarded as casualties from heavy industry that still has a significant presence in the Ohio Valley. He was among a group of 30 who coursed through this part of the tri-state on a bus, glimpsing and stopping at industrial sites along a 100-mile stretch.

And the sites were many.

The tour was organized by the Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the Climate Realty Project; FracTracker Alliance; Breathe Project; and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. 

Tour attendees discussed and listened to concerns related to natural gas processing, pipelines, emissions, pollution and – of course – cracker plants.

Many of their contentions, to be sure, conflict with statements by industry officials, such as fracking is usually done safely and greenhouse gas emissions have been cut dramatically. One natural gas producer recently established a goal of zero emissions.

Coalition members and supporters stated their case Friday.

The event began in Robinson Township, advanced to Beaver County, then navigated Ohio and West Virginia roadways that hugged the river south to Proctor, W.Va.

Twenty minutes into the tour, shortly after the bus crossed into Beaver County on Interstate 376, Karen Gdula picked up the microphone and talked about “my nightmare that became reality.”

She pointed to a barren hillside to the east where, last Sept. 10, the Revolution Pipeline burst following a landslide, sending flames aloft a short distance from the home where she grew up and which she now owns. One house and several garages and vehicles were destroyed.

“As a child, I had a nightmare that the woods behind my house were on fire,” Gdula said. “Then we had this fire in September. The flames were probably 300 feet high. It was very intense.”

Early in the journey, organizers passed along a jar containing polyethylene pellets, “the building block for plastics,” one said. These so-called “nurdles” are a vital product for the much-celebrated Pennsylvania Shell cracker plant that is under construction in Potter Township, Beaver County.

This type of facility processes ethane, a component of natural gas that is prevalent in the nearby Marcellus Shale, and processes – or “cracks” – it into ethylene.

Wheeling down Interstate 376, the bus passed over the $6 billion project, which is brimming with activity and with construction cranes, including one that is believed to be the tallest in the world. The plant is a polarizing endeavor, one the oil and gas industry embraces, but which concerns environmental advocates.

“Ethane is colorless, odorless and extremely flammable,” said Terrie Baumgardner, a Beaver County resident. “I started reading about cracker plants in 2010 and thought this would be good for Beaver County, because it was economically depressed. But after reading for a few weeks, I decided I was wrong.

“This plant,” she contended, “will produce plastics and climate change.”

Plastics and emissions were recurring themes throughout the trip. A number of speakers lamented that many plastic products are used once, then discarded. They recommended limitations on these items – especially grocery bags.

“We have to support renewables and alternatives (as energy sources),” one speaker announced. “We have to reduce the use of plastic. It’s too much plastic.”

Emissions raise cancer, cardiovascular, radioactivity and other concerns. Bob Schmetzer, who worked in several facilities that were on the tour, referred to the ongoing mystery of the Ewing Sarcoma cases in a four-county area of Southwestern Pennsylvania that includes Washington.

“Twenty-seven cases,” Schmetzer said. “That’s not a random occurrence in my opinion.”

The tour went on to include the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station (which may close within two years), ATI Allegheny Ludlum (Midland) and Little Blue Run – the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment – before leaving Pennsylvania.

“There’s a claim that nuclear plants don’t pollute. They do.” Schmetzer opined.

The second half of the tour wound along the river through eastern Ohio and the West Virginia panhandle. It included a coal-fired power plant and Marshall County Coal Co. – owned by Murray Energy Corp., the largest privately owned coal firm in the United States. There also were a couple of fractionators, a plastics producer (Covestro) and . . . the site of a proposed ethane cracker plant.

Firms from Thailand and South Korea are planning to build the PTTGC ethane cracker on a barren 900-acre site in Dilles Bottom, Belmont County, Ohio. The companies have secured most of the necessary permits, but have yet to make a financial investment.

“The Ohio River Valley is poised to be a petrochemical hub with a second cracker plant,” one speaker said, a prospect that likely got few endorsements among his commuting peers.

editor's pick
State court sides with O-R in open-records fight with Cal U.

Commonwealth Court ruled Friday that California University of Pennsylvania must provide an Observer-Reporter staff writer with records of donations from the contractor that received millions of dollars to build a campus parking garage that later developed structural problems.

In what appears to be the first decision addressing this question, a three-judge panel found that the state open-records law doesn’t exempt government agencies like Cal U. – which is part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education – from disclosing records of corporate donations.

Reporter Gideon Bradshaw had requested all records involving donations from Manheim Corp. to The Foundation for California University from 2008 through 2013. In 2009, the Mt. Lebanon company won a $10.5 million contract to build the five-level Vulcan garage, which opened the following year.

Bradshaw made his request in August, two weeks after the school brought a lawsuit against Manheim and other firms over the partial collapse of the five-level Vulcan garage on Aug. 26, 2016, which was move-in day that year. The garage has been unused ever since. The contractor has denied liability for the cave-in.

Cal U. filed an appeal after the state Office of Open Records found that the school had to turn over records of Manheim’s donations to the foundation. Much of the Commonwealth Court’s ruling dealt with language in the Right To Know Law that protects records that identify an “individual who lawfully makes a donation” to a government agency.

Attorney Michael Ferguson, who represents the state university system, contended that that section also exempted records of donations from corporations such as Manheim. The judges hearing the appeal disagreed, citing the definition of “individual” set out elsewhere in state law.

“An individual is a ‘natural person,’ while the broader term ‘person’ includes both natural persons and other types of entities, such as corporations,” read a nine-page opinion by Judge Kevin Brobson. “Under those definitions, a corporation is a person, but it is not an individual.”

Brobson also wrote that the foundation’s fundraising and management of donations on behalf of Cal U. amount to a “governmental function,” so the school has an obligation to disclose records of those activities.

Cal U. has 30 days to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“What I can say is we’re reviewing the decision,” wrote PASSHE spokesman David Pidgeon in an email, “and we will respond at an appropriate time and in an appropriate venue.”

Bradshaw and the Observer-Reporter were represented by attorneys Colin Fitch and Cary Douglas Jones of the Washington firm Marriner, Jones and Fitch.

Pittsburgh Melanoma Foundation 5k Run/Walk

Participants prepare for a previous year’s Pittsburgh Melanoma Foundation 5k Run/Walk.

Monongahela seeks to set wedding cookie table world record

MONONGAHELA – Monongahela is seeking to set a world record for having the largest wedding cookie table when the city celebrates its 250th birthday in August.

The table will accompany back-to-back weddings at the Chess Park Gazebo Aug. 11, with a representative from Guinness World Records on hand to establish the category, said Laura Magone, president of Monongahela Area Historical Society.

“I’ve had this dream for five years. Now, the time is right,” said Magone, whose society is organizing the events that will include a free concert that afternoon by the Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers.

She said six couples have expressed interest in getting married that day in the park, where the receptions will include a lot of cookies.

“We will have more than enough cookies for the people who sign up for this,” Magone said.

Magone has been working on a documentary about the cookie tables, which are unique to the Pittsburgh region.

Her project took flight after she started a Facebook page, The Wedding Cookie Table Community, which now has more than 19,000 members. She also has hosted events that have drawn large crowds of bakers to Washington County from across the country.

“This park is going to be full,” she said. “The Wedding Cookie Table Community travels.”

“The members on Facebook are very excited about this,” Magone added.

She said organizers hope to have hundreds of thousands of cookies at the event.

She said people from Washington, D.C., and Michigan have said they were planning to travel to Monongahela for the party.

“It’s just a fun event for the 250th,” she said.

She said the anniversary recognizes the first settler, Joseph Parkinson, who procured land where the small city now stands in 1769.

She said the historical society is preparing to release the schedule for the four-day celebration that begins Aug. 8.

The group plans to open a time capsule the city buried in the park in 1969, the last time the birthday was recognized with events.

The cookies will begin arriving at the park at noon, followed by the weddings at 2:30 p.m. The band will begin performing about 3 p.m.

“The weddings are going to be quick,” Magone said.