Appalachia is a ‘prime target’ for controversial chemical recycling plants

Appalachia is a ‘prime target’ for controversial chemical recycling plants

This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

On a bright, cold day in February, Akeem Lattermore stood in front of her house, pointing out the site of a proposed facility to convert old tires, electronic waste and plastic into fuel.

The site, owned by SOBE Thermal Energy Systems, is currently home to old, dilapidated buildings and a natural gas-fired steam heat generating unit. It’s less than a half-mile from Lattermore’s home, and can be seen from her front yard, which bears a sign with an image of a black plume of smoke and the message “Stop SOBE. We have enough toxic air pollution.”

“I’ve survived cancer twice,” Lattermore told Environmental Health News (EHN). “I think our environment has a lot to do with this.”

Youngstown has a long industrial history and remains home to several sources of industrial pollution, including a steel mill and other metal manufacturers, a concrete plant, and a hazardous waste treatment facility.

Youngstown’s polluting industries released 80,600 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air and water in 2022, including carcinogenic heavy metals such as lead, nickel and chromium compounds, and potential carcinogens such as ethylbenzene, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Substances Release Inventory ).

“I’m a two-time cancer survivor. I think our environment has a lot to do with it.”

Residents like Lattermore fear that SOBE’s proposed chemical recycling plant — which is currently on hold after the city passed a one-year moratorium — will only increase that toxic burden.

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Just one of many suggested

There are proposals underway for similar chemical recycling plants across the country. According to a 2023 report by the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, 11 such facilities had already been established in the United States as of September 2023, with one closing this year.

Proposals for projects similar to SOBE throughout the Ohio River Valley have also met with community resistance — but there are likely more to come.

“Appalachia is definitely a prime target for chemical recycling,” Jess Conard, director of the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, told EHN. “There are often significant tax subsidies available for these types of industries in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and part of the culture of this region is that people feel they have to make health sacrifices to put food on the table, as we’ve seen with extractive industries like coal mining.” And hydraulic fracturing.

Proposed location for the SOBE Thermal Energy Systems chemical recycling facility in Youngstown, Ohio. Photo: Kristina Marusic for EHN

Red brick building with graffiti saying "Turn off the rooms"

Youngstown has a long industrial history and remains home to several sources of industrial pollution, including a steel mill and other metal manufacturers, a concrete plant, and a hazardous waste treatment facility. Photo: Kristina Marusic/EHN

At least two other chemical recycling plants in Ohio have received state or local support, according to a 2023 Beyond Plastics report. Akron, Ohio-based Alterra Inc., received a state loan and $1.6 million in support from the city of Akron in rebates Various, including a $1-per-year property lease in exchange for “a percentage of the project’s future cash flow.” Purecycle, Ironton, Ohio, received $250 million in revenue bonds from the Southern Ohio Port Authority.

Chemical recycling facilities may also receive federal subsidies through several programs, including the Department of Energy’s $25 million Plastics Innovation Strategy, grants and loans from the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture, and the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

While these projects are moving forward promising to solve the plastic crisis, communities are concerned about the impacts.

“Right now there is no evidence that this is safe,” Youngstown City Council President Tom Hetrick, who passed the one-year moratorium, told EHN.

Chemical recycling controversy

A man stands in front of a dilapidated industrial factory

“Right now there is no evidence that this is safe,” said Tom Hetrick, president of the Youngstown City Council. Photo: Kristina Marusic/EHN

Chemical recycling is an umbrella term for processes that use heat, chemicals, or both to break down plastic waste into component parts for reuse as plastic feedstock or fuel. These processes differ from traditional or mechanical plastic recycling, which breaks down plastic waste physically but not at the molecular level. Only 5 to 6 percent of plastic waste in the United States is recycled, and proponents of chemical recycling say it can help create a true circular economy.

“We’re not going to create circularity for plastics with one solution,” Chris Layton, sustainability manager for specialty plastics at Eastman Chemical, told EHN. “We’re going to have to get rid of some of the plastics we don’t really need, find ways to reduce and reuse them and maximize what we can do for mechanical and advanced recycling.”

However, opponents say chemical recycling facilities exacerbate climate change and emit toxic chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and other persistent pollutants. VOCs and heavy metals. Lattermore is concerned about the cumulative effects.

“A lot of my family members who lived in this house also had cancer. My grandmother, my father, my sister,” Lattermore said. “I have four grandchildren and two daughters. How will they survive living near this kind of waste?

The American Chemistry Council calls for relaxing environmental regulations for these types of facilities, encouraging states to reclassify them from solid waste facilities to manufacturing facilities, which would require less stringent permit applications, reduce regulatory oversight of air emissions and toxic waste and allow them to seek permits. Additional subsidies for taxpayers. Ohio is one of 24 states that have already done so, along with Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi — a grouping that includes most of the Ohio River Valley and much of Appalachia.

“We will not create circularity for plastics with one solution.” Chris Layton, Eastman Chemical Company

Meanwhile, environmentalists are fighting to stop the construction of these plants.

“Even if all advanced recycling plants in the United States were operating at full capacity without any problems, they would only manage 1.3% of the global plastic waste we currently have,” Conard said. “The plastics industry is pushing this technology as a solution so they can continue to manufacture new plastics.”

Environmental justice concerns

Five women - 3 black and 2 white - stand in the street holding a sign with the words: "Turn off the rooms"

SOBE Endowment Members. Photo: Kristina Marusic/EHN

Lattermore was among a group of local residents who fought to stop the SOBE plant in Youngstown. They distributed flyers, contacted policymakers and knocked on doors to collect hundreds of petition signatures. Ultimately, they received support from the Youngstown City Council.

“I think one of my primary concerns is location,” Hetrick said. “It’s in a busy neighborhood. There are residential neighbors, a couple of popular bars there, a restaurant corner, a church on the other side, a five or six-story prison half a block in the other direction, and a group of Youngstown State University dorms there. ”

“It’s also an environmental justice district, and in terms of environmental hazards and risks, it seems like a terrible place to put this type of operation,” he explained.

In September, a representative from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to the Ohio EPA noting that the project “raises potential environmental justice concerns” because Youngstown ranks 80th in the state for ozone and diesel pollution . Particulate matter, air toxin cancer risk, proximity to traffic, lead paint, proximity to a Superfund site, proximity to an RMP facility, proximity to hazardous waste, underground storage tanks and wastewater discharges.

“The population living in the area surrounding the facility is largely composed of people of color, linguistically isolated (Spanish language) families, low-income people, those with less than a high school education and a high unemployment rate,” the letter noted. Before advising the Ohio EPA to “conduct a more comprehensive environmental justice analysis of the appropriate scope to inform a permit decision.”

In December, the Youngstown City Council voted unanimously to adopt a one-year moratorium on the pyrolysis, gasification or combustion of tires, plastics and electronic waste. The council said it intends to spend the year conducting more research on these types of facilities.

“In terms of environmental risks and hazards, it seems like a terrible place to put this type of operation.” – Tom Hetrick, Youngstown City Council President

When Hetrick looked at other facilities, he found stories of serious accidents and fires at a chemical recycling plant in Ashley, Indiana, that exacerbated his concerns.

In a statement about the moratorium on its website, SOBE said the company “respects this cautious approach and is committed to working closely with city officials and community members.” SOBE did not respond to a request for an interview.

In February, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued an air permit for the proposed SOBE plant, sparking a strong community outcry.

“I am extremely disappointed in the Ohio EPA and their decision to grant a permit to SOBE,” Hetrick said in a statement after the announcement. “It is clear to me that Ohio EPA spent months transcribing, sorting and calculating hundreds of comments from concerned Youngstown residents, but did not actually listen to us or respond in any meaningful way.”

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