Petrochemical Toxics in the Ohio River Watershed
Survey and Mapping of Permitted Toxic Discharges in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia
This report was written by Ryan Talbott, Earthworks and Erica Jackson, FracTracker
On the banks of the Ohio River in southwestern Pennsylvania, one of world’s largest fossil fuel companies, Royal Dutch Shell, is building a petrochemical complex that, if it becomes operational, will flood the world with 1.6 million tons of plastic each year. This toxic facility is just the first in a planned buildout that could turn the Ohio River valley into a petrochemical hub similar to what exists along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, known as “Cancer Alley.” Such a buildout would have devastating consequences on the Ohio River and the millions of people that rely on it for drinking water. Before further expansion of the petrochemical industry occurs in the Ohio River Basin, it is important to understand the industry’s current footprint and how much toxic pollution is currently discharged into the basins streams and rivers.
To understand the petrochemical industry’s current footprint in the upper Ohio River Basin, we used public databases maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to search for petrochemical-related facilities that had National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permits. Once the NPDES permits were compiled, we reviewed each permit to find toxic chemicals that are permitted to be discharged into rivers and streams. Only those toxic chemicals that had mass-based numeric discharge limits (e.g., kg/d) were included in this analysis.
Of the permits reviewed containing mass-based discharge limitations, petrochemical facilities are permitted to annually discharge over 500,000 pounds of toxic pollutants into the Ohio River Basin within Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. These toxic pollutants include known carcinogens like benzene, vinyl chloride, and trichloroethylene and over 100 other chemicals that can affect human health in a variety of ways, including birth defects, developmental disorders, and effects to the central nervous system and endocrine system.
Shell’s ethane cracker will significantly increase the rate of permitted discharge of several toxics, including vinyl chloride (68% increase) and trichloroethylene (75% increase).
Read the full Earthworks report (link).
Petrochemical Sites in the Ohio River Basin
This map shows petrochemical sites and visualizes the mass of toxins they are permitted to discharge in three states of the Ohio River Basin (Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania).
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu.
Shell’s ethane cracker will increase the rate of permitted discharge of toxic vinyl chloride by 68% and trichloroethylene by 75%.
The Ohio River is already considered one of the most polluted rivers in the country and there are several petrochemical facilities within the watershed that are hazardous waste sites. The expansion of the petrochemical industry in the Ohio River Basin would exacerbate these impacts for the millions of people who live there and rely on the Ohio River for drinking water.
Regulatory agencies have also weakened standards meant to improve and protect water quality at the same time that the petrochemical industry targets the Ohio River Basin for expansion. If what’s past is prologue, action must be taken now to prevent further expansion of this toxic industry.
References & Where to Learn More
Data Layers and Sources:
- Petrochemical Facilities: plants with NPDES permits within the study region. Source: EPA’s ECHO Database Watershed Statistics and Water Pollution Search, compiled by FracTracker Alliance and Ryan Talbott. Date: August, 2021.
- Water Supplier with Intake on Ohio River and tributaries. Source: ORSANCO, supplemented with Google Maps, September 2021. This data layer does not show the exact location of water intake sites. The facilities listed include a mix of water treatment plants, mailing addresses, and public office buildings associated with drinking water suppliers. The name, city, state, and zip code were provided by ORSANCO, and the point locations are estimates based off public information available online and by phone. Date: September, 2021.
- Total Permitted Toxics Per Watershed: HUC 8 Watershed boundaries, which show the sum of total annual permitted toxics (in pounds) from petrochemical facilities within that watershed. Note, this layer only includes toxics that had mass loading values listed on their NPDES permit, and excludes toxics that had concentration values. Source: USGS, FracTracker Alliance and EPA’s water Pollution Search. Date: September, 2021.
- Counties: Source: US Census Bureau.
- Ohio River Basin: Source: FracTracker Alliance
- Ohio River: Source: FracTracker Alliance
- Study Area: Source: FracTracker Alliance
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