Monday, May 16, 2022

Guest Essay: When People Have To Choose Health Or Jobs, Everyone Loses - The View From Rachel Carson’s Homestead In Allegheny County

By Kiley Bense

This guest essay first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette May 15, 2022--

If you stand in the sloping yard of the Rachel Carson Homestead and look down toward the Allegheny River, you can see the smokestacks of the Cheswick Generating Station. One is banded in orange and white, like a lighthouse; the other is dun-colored concrete.

When Rachel Carson was born here in 1907, this five-room white clapboard house about 18 miles east of Pittsburgh sat on 64 acres of farmland on the edge of town. The property included an apple and pear orchard, barn, and chicken coop.

Then, too, industry existed alongside the natural world. Carson would later recall the stench from the glue factory next to Springdale’s train station. When she was a teenager, West Penn Power built a coal power plant in Springdale

In the famous opening of her book “Silent Spring,” Carson describes a fictional, bucolic hamlet, a literary echo of the Springdale she knew as a girl. 

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” she writes. “The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.”

She writes about the vivid maples and striking birches, the nodding ferns and wildflowers, the deer and foxes and abundant fish who swim in clear, cold creeks, “the mists of the fall mornings.” 

Most of all, she writes about birds: the robins, wrens, and doves whose voices come together in a “dawn chorus.”

Out of place

Now the Carson homestead seems out of place on Marion Avenue. Brick single-story houses and asphalt crowd in on all sides. The sounds of traffic and barking dogs and chatting neighbors cut through the birdsong, and the yard backs onto Springdale High School’s parking lot. 

And you can see smokestacks from her yard.

The Generating Station was permanently closed earlier this month after 50 years of operation. It was the last coal-fired power plant in the county and one of the last in Pennsylvania, and 50 people lost their jobs in the closure.

 Some residents worried about the economic impact on businesses in their small community.

GenOn Holdings, the plant’s owner, was also a source of financial support for Springdale in the form of donations to churches, parks, emergency management services, and projects like GenOn field, a baseball diamond built in 2012 for which the company donated more than $17,000.

This is an old story in southwest Pennsylvania, a well-worn narrative about the hard choices to be made between opportunity and public health, prosperity and preservation, stability and safety. 

For nearly as long as there has been European settlement, people here have benefited from — and been subject to the dangers unleashed by — the fuels beneath their feet. 

It’s been a story about what must be endured in order to get by, whether that meant “killer smog,” lung disease, or industrial accidents.

A political fight

Today, this familiar fight has taken on heightened urgency. 

Depending on who is telling the story, that urgency has been brought on by the climate crisis and the harmful effects of the fracking boom. 

Or it’s tied to gas prices, unemployment, and foreign oil.

Springdale is part of Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 17th Congressional district, one of 26 races that the Cook Political Report considers a toss-up for 2022. The issues of the environment, energy and jobs are front and center in the May 17 primary.

Politicians, like the candidates running in the 17th Congressional district, try to have it both ways. 

The Democrats speak about the urgency of responding to climate change and tend to emphasize the jobs that could be created in that response. 

Republicans promote oil and gas investment and fracking as engines of economic growth.

Candidates from both parties say they want to protect residents from pollution. 

But few people think that it might be possible to craft an entirely new story about this part of the country, a story that doesn’t revolve around fossil fuels.

Bob Schmetzer, a member of a local grassroots environmental group, the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, who has lived in the area all his life, explained the trade-offs. 

The thinking went like this, when so many depended on the steel mills for their livelihoods and grandmothers swept soot off their porches every night he said: “As long as there is dirt to sweep, we’ll have food to eat.”

“There’s a feeling of ‘we trade our health for jobs’ here,’” said Terrie Baumgardner, who works for the Clean Air Council. “That’s what we do.”

The polluting cracker plant

About thirty miles from Springdale, along the Ohio River in the town of Monaca in Beaver County, an ethane cracker plant being built by Royal Dutch Shell is the latest and largest development to take advantage of the natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale.

 “Cracker” is shorthand for the process used to break down the gas molecules into smaller molecules.

It is slated to open sometime in 2022. During the construction, which began in 2017, parking lots for the struggling Beaver Valley Mall have filled with buses for workers and cars with out of state license plates.

The plant will use ethane to make 1.6 million tons of tiny plastic pellets a year, called “nurdles,” which are “feedstock” that can be made into a range of plastic products. It is permitted to emit 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.

Its construction was made possible by $1.7 billion in tax credits from the state. Though Shell employed 6,000 workers during the construction phase, in normal operations, the company expects to employ 600 people.

An exploding pipeline

On an unusually hot spring day, I met with a group of people concerned about the Shell plant’s environmental and health impacts at the Allegheny Health Network’s Cancer Institute in Beaver County, a gleaming new building behind the Beaver Valley Mall and across from Rural King, a farm supply store.

In September 2018, Energy Transfer’s Revolution pipeline exploded behind Karen Gdula’s house on Ivy Lane, only a few miles away from where we were standing. [Read more here.]

She keeps a carefully organized binder of the events of that day and its aftermath, with photographs showing the cindered remains of one of her neighbors’ houses, a charred outline where a home used to be. 

“As a child, I had a recurring nightmare that the woods behind my house were on fire,” she said. “And that morning, my childhood nightmare became a reality.”

Now, she’s worried about the Shell plant. In March, the plant reported a 2,500-gallon spill of sulfuric acid. 

Although the spill was contained at the site, Ms. Gdula is concerned about the potential for spills like it to contaminate her water supply in the future. The company didn’t notify the local water authority.

“I can see the glow in the sky from my house at night,” she said. “The week that they lit their pilots, I heard the rumbling.” 

I asked her if she had ever considered moving. Her parents built her house in 1957, and it’s where she grew up. Ivy Lane is a charming, welcoming neighborhood. Her gardens are bursting with daffodils, her back porch laden with bird feeders, swinging in the breeze.

“Believe it or not,” she said, in recent months “there have been bidding wars for the houses in this neighborhood.” 

But none of this is why she hasn’t left. 

“My neighbor who now lives closest to the pipelines went out looking for a new house, and she found one she loved. She walked outside and she looked around and she realized that Revolution was there too.”

At least, Ms. Gdula concluded, the pipelines in her neighborhood were 300 or 350 feet away from her home, rather than 30. 

“There’s no guarantees when you move,” she said. 

Even if she bought a house with no pipelines in sight, there was nothing to stop another company from seizing and building on nearby land. The Shell plant alone requires 97 miles of pipeline and 1,000 fracking wells to feed it.

“What we have a fear of here,” said Clifford Lau, “is the fact that unlike in Louisiana and Texas and Oklahoma, where it’s very flat, here, they’re right down in the valley.” He teaches chemistry and environmental science and is an adjunct professor at Duquesne University.

“None of their stacks are really above the ridgelines, so if things are going to come down, the valley’s going to act like a big pipe,” Dr. Lau went on. “Depending on which way the wind is going, either it’s going to go that way toward Beaver. Or if the wind’s coming from the opposite direction,” he gestured to the west, “it’s gonna go that way toward Ohio and Steubenville.”

Was worry about the Shell plant’s pollution a frequent topic of conversation among people who live near Monaca, especially as the plant nears operation? “Not at all,” said Ms. Gdula. “I have to bring it up and then usually their eyes roll back in their head.”

“The response I get is that they haven’t had time to look into it,” Dr. Lau said. “And I’m trying to say, well, what’s a better time to look into it?”

“Beaver County has had a lot of manufacturing with chemicals and smells,” Ms. Gdula added. “It’s almost like it’s part of the DNA of Beaver County: ‘My father worked in the mill; my grandfather worked in the mill, and yeah, their life got cut short,’ but you know,” she paused. “It’s accepted.”

A spring without voices

A couple of days later, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden hosted an Earth Day celebration in the parking lot and lawn in front of their 80-acre grounds, which sit beside the Ohio River where it curves south.

 It is about five miles east of the Shell cracker plant, and there are two air quality monitors on the grounds here, one small part of ongoing community and non-profit efforts to keep track of Shell’s impacts on the environment.

In the convent’s parking lot, there was a food truck and a series of tents set up with tables for children to make crafts and listen to Starla the Storyteller, whose skirt jingled with gold coins when she moved. 

Some of the tents housed representatives from local environmental groups like the Marcellus Awareness group, Clean Air Council, and Moms Clean Air Force.

When I arrived, there was a cluster of kids listening to Starla’s performance, but there seemed to be few members of the public interested in the pamphlets and posters in the environmentalists’ tents. 

I spotted Clifford Lau standing by one of the tables. “We’re just talking to ourselves here,” he said, surveying the empty lot.

The opening of “Silent Spring” ends with a dire vision of what might come to pass if nothing is done to curb industrial pollution.

There comes a “strange stillness” and the arrival of a “spring without voices”: “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

There is a reason that Carson chose to begin her fact-driven book with a fable. Stories are powerful. They help us to understand ourselves and make sense of our circumstances. 

But stories can be limiting, too. They can harden into scripts, memorized and repeated without acknowledgement that every ending is not pre-ordained.

Sometimes, people forget that they are not only the inheritors of stories but also their narrators. 

“No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world,” Carson wrote, 60 years ago, thinking of her hometown, perched on a Pennsylvania hillside. “The people had done it themselves.”

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer and elsewhere.

Resource Links - Pennsylvania’s Rachel Carson:

-- Celebrate Her Birthday May 27, 1907 

-- 60 Years Since Silent Spring Was Published

-- Rachel Carson Homestead 

-- The Life & Legacy Of Rachel Carson 

Related Articles - Rachel Carson:

-- Rachel Carson On Leadership: The Human Race is Challenged More Than Ever Before To Demonstrate Our Mastery, Not Over Nature, But Of Ourselves  [PaEN]

-- Guest Essay: In Praise Of Rachel Carson And Public Service; Happy Birthday Rachel Carson!  - By James M. Seif, Former Secretary of DEP  [PaEN]

-- Feature - What We Owe To Pennsylvania’s Rachel Carson  [PaEN]

-- Bay Journal: Rachel Carson No Stranger To The Chesapeake Bay, Its Creatures  [PaEN]

-- PA Conservation Heritage/WITF Documentary On Rachel Carson  [PaEN]

-- Game Commission, DEP, DCNR Held Live Rachel Carson Building Peregrine Falcon Banding Event  [PaEN]

[Posted: May 16, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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