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Citizens groups wary of cracker plant proposal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Following Thursday's announcement of what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called an economic development "game-changer," state environmental groups say they're concerned that a potential ethane cracker plant could really end up being more of the same for West Virginia.

Citizens groups aren't rushing to flatly oppose the project, but they said they want to see more details about the sort of plant the Brazilian firm Odebrecht would build in Wood County, and hope the company and the state will start taking steps to discuss potential environmental impacts early in the process.

Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said his organization has not yet taken a position on the matter but that potential concerns are fairly obvious.

"As with any large industrial facility, we are concerned about likely increases in air and water pollution," Garvin said Friday. "The administration will say, of course, that any such facility will have to go through the permitting process. However, the end result is always the release of more tons of pollution into our air and water."

Citizens groups also said last week they remain concerned that the state is overly focused on the natural gas boom to the detriment of cleaner economic development and energy projects, and that it isn't doing enough to ensure that gas drilling is done in a way that doesn't harm the environment or surface landowners.

In last week's announcement, Tomblin said Odebrecht would "explore the development" of a new petrochemical complex in Wood County. If built, the complex would include an ethane cracker, a facility that would process ethane from Marcellus Shale natural gas production to make ethylene, one of the primary building blocks for petrochemicals and important raw materials for countless everyday items.

West Virginia business boosters and political leaders have been campaigning for several years to lure a cracker plant to the state, hoping such a project could take byproducts from the Marcellus drilling boom and turn them into thousands of spin-off manufacturing jobs.

Neither state officials nor company executives revealed exactly how large an investment the complex would involve, nor how many direct jobs could be created. Odebrecht has an option to buy land for the facility, but has not yet finalized the purchase.

When word leaked of Thursday's announcement, though, it set off a media frenzy and sent state and local officials running to declare a major economic development victory.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the cracker plant, if built, would create thousands of jobs while "keeping us strong and competitive." Manchin promised to "assist in any way that I can" and to make sure the Obama administration and its Environmental Protection Agency "work as our partner and not as our adversary."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., praised the project's potential but also sounded a note of caution about possible downsides if it's not handled properly.

"We're at the frontier of the fracking revolution and everything surrounding shale gas development must be done responsibly," Rockefeller said. "West Virginia stands to benefit greatly from today's announcement, but only if the environmental, health and economic interests of West Virginians are the top priority every step of the way."

The cracker project would have to obtain a variety of state Department of Environmental Protection permits, likely including those to cover water and air pollution discharges.

One potential hurdle appears to have been removed in September, when the EPA agreed with state officials that the Wood County area now meets federal air-quality standards. Previously, state officials had noted that the area violated standards for fine-particle pollution, a designation that could have made it more difficult for a large, new facility to obtain a state air permit.       

While state business leaders frequently complain that the permitting process takes too much time and is overly burdensome, an official from Odebrecht expressed no such concerns when asked about environmental matters during a news conference last week.

"One of the things we are committed to is a sustainable philosophy," said David Peebles, vice president of business development for the company. "Permitting is a very, very fundamental part of this process.

"And the permitting process is positive," Peebles said. "You hear some complaints about permitting, but we have clean air, we have clean water, we have safety rules in place because of best practices, and we are going to follow these best practices."

However, Vivian Stockman, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said her group's concerns about the Marcellus boom and any related proposals for a cracker plant are more fundamental.

"While Governor Tomblin is calling this possible plant a 'game changer,' for West Virginia, he and most other state politicians seem to be playing the same old poisonous fossil-fuel game: Rush headlong into tax giveaways and look the other way while public health and well-being suffer," Stockman said.

Burning natural gas generates fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal, and so advocates of the drilling boom say it's a far better alternative, as far as its impact on global warming. More recent studies are more closely examining the methane releases from natural gas production, though, and even industry advocates say much more needs to be done to reduce those greenhouse emissions.

Cindy Rank, a representative of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said that group has not talked much about cracker plant proposals but remains concerned about impacts from the Marcellus boom.

Two years ago, West Virginia lawmakers passed a law they said would toughen regulation of modern, horizontal natural gas drilling. However, the final version was significantly weakened during talks between Tomblin's office and industry lobbyists.

Studies released since that law was passed have raised questions about the adequacy of the law's provisions for buffer zones between drilling and homes, limiting air emissions and controlling the flow of wastewater from drilling operations. So far, neither Tomblin nor legislative leaders have announced plans for additional legislation on those issues.

"State officials have been ignoring the outcry from folks whose lives have been upended by Marcellus Shale drilling and waste disposal activities," Stockman said.

Stockmen noted that many residents in the Wood County area and downstream have already seen their drinking water supplies polluted by toxic chemicals from the nearby DuPont Co. plant's longtime production of Teflon materials.

"Considering these folks would be a game-changer," Stockman said. "Acknowledging climate change, as well as the state's troubles with water quality and quantity would be a game-changer. Working to bring cleaner, renewable energy jobs and manufacturing here would be a game-changer. Embracing a highly-polluting industry without thinking about all the hidden costs is just more of the same, sad old game."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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