When Mark Dixon found out Shell Oil Company planned to build a petrochemical plant in nearby Beaver County, he immediately thought of the pollution and environmental devastation that would soon take place there.
“It really pissed me off,” Dixon said.
In an event sponsored by the Student Office of Sustainability, Dixon — a documentary filmmaker, environmental activist and public speaker— spoke about companies such as Shell to an audience of about 40 people in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room Wednesday night. During the event, titled “Is Pittsburgh the new cancer alley?” Dixon provided solutions to prevent Pittsburgh from becoming the next Cancer Alley — a highly polluted area along the Mississippi River surrounded by petrochemical plants.
Dixon spoke in particular about the dangers of the ethane cracker plant currently being built in Beaver County, 40 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh by car. Shell promises this $6 billion plastics manufacturing plant will create 600 permanent jobs and significantly boost the economy.
At the beginning of his presentation, Dixon disclaimed to the audience that he is at liberty to speak his mind because he is not representing any company or any other individuals. He also said he has a responsibility to tell the truth.
“Nobody can tell me what to say. Nobody can tell me what not to say,” Dixon said. “But I’m not a total loose cannon. While I’m not beholden to anyone, I am beholden to the truth and the community.”
For his new documentary titled “Inversion: The Unfinished Business of Pittsburgh’s Air,” Dixon said he initially investigated the frontline community in Beaver County to get first-person opinions on the plant being built in the region. But he found that it was difficult to encourage residents to be the face of resistance for the plant because they are constantly being fed information from Shell through pamphlets and postcards, which only depict the positive aspects of the plant. Shell argued that they will be a “good neighbor” and that the plant will boost the economy.
“The primary news source in Beaver County is Shell,” Dixon said. “[Beaver County residents] don’t have the sense of alarm that a little extra research would trigger in them.”
Dixon said the petrochemical facility will add significant amounts of volatile organic compounds to Southwestern Pennsylvania’s already polluted air. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection granted Shell permission to emit 3.4 times more VOCs with the cracker plant than U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works — which is the largest manufacturing facility in the United States for coke, or fuel made from coal that has a high carbon content.
Dixon also said a lot of responsibility lies in the hands of local politicians. He criticized Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for agreeing with the Paris Agreement — a plan to avoid climate change and keep the global average temperature below two degrees Celsius — while also supporting the ethane cracker plant. Dixon called this “inappropriate.”
“Our local politicians don’t think they have jurisdiction,” Dixon said. “They won’t speak out until we make it politically unfeasible for them to speak out. The more people bug them about it the better.”
Because of President Donald Trump’s recent visit to China, where he signed a Memorandum of Understanding, or an MOU, with China Energy Investment Corp. to invest in a 20-year shale gas and chemical project in West Virginia, Dixon said the Southwestern Pennsylvania region is now the next big front in global climate change — $80 to $90 billion big.
“You can’t be a full human and work in this industry,” Dixon said. “That’s my opinion.”
But Dixon does have hope for the future and explained the contents of his three-pronged strategy — advocating for a ban on fracking, arguing against permits for pipelines and getting outside help.
“This is not just a Pittsburgh and Appalachia issue,” Dixon said. “It’s your backyard. People outside of the [Beaver County] region are more sensitive and they’re waking up.”
He also listed some less environmentally harmful alternatives to cracker plants such as bioplastics, hemp plastics, mushroom plastics, green chemistry and potentially zero-emission plants. Dixon said companies such as Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action and Allegheny County Clean Air Now are fighting against air pollution in Southwestern Pennsylvania as well.
These environmentally friendly alternatives were a welcome change for Emma Washa, a senior at Pitt majoring in communications, who said she appreciated Dixon’s focus on ways to prevent further pollution. Washa said she often feels bombarded by hearing only the harmful aspects of the cracker plant.
“Everyone talks about [the plant] and all the negative health effects, but I never really heard any solutions,” Washa said. “I liked how Mark Dixon went more into that.”
Washa also said she was surprised to hear how extensive Shell’s propaganda was to convince Beaver County residents that the plant will be beneficial for them. She said while she is hopeful that Pittsburgh’s air quality will improve through some of the solutions Dixon suggested, she is also scared because the task seems daunting.
“I think the optimist part of me believes that we can avoid becoming the new Cancer Alley, but it will involve a lot of work and time,” Washa said.
Junior Maura Deely, an environmental science major, said she thought Trump’s recent $250 billion trade deal with China was particularly devastating, and that public health is on the line with the new cracker plant in Beaver County.
“We need to keep moving forward,” Deely said. “We can’t just keep looking back and doing the same old thing.”
At the end of his presentation, Dixon showcased a few video clips from his documentaries to emphasize the massive scale of the cracker plant and the urgency of the air pollution crisis. He said despite the hard work it will take to get a ban on fracking in Pennsylvania, and the fact that the cracker plant is already being built, he is still determined to demand change from local politicians and big corporations.
“Many people say, Mark, isn’t the Shell cracker a done deal?” he said. “I think it’s as much of a done deal as our climate. I’m not resigned to just giving into the status quo because ‘it’s a done deal.’”