The environmental health costs of a petrochemical future for North Carolina

A chemical industry trade group is touting a job-creating side benefit of fracking in North Carolina, claiming that building a plant to process natural gas into the petrochemical products used to make plastics and synthetic fabrics would create thousands of jobs for the state.

But the experience of other places with similar facilities shows those jobs would come at a heavy cost to the health of the environment and local community.

The American Chemistry Council recently released a report claiming that 15,000 jobs would result from construction of a single ethylene production plant in North Carolina, where the legislature recently legalized fracking, which could begin as soon as 2014. The plants are known as "ethane crackers" because they break down or "crack" complex hydrocarbons from oil and gas into simpler molecules that can then be turned into everything from trash bags to footwear, tires to paint. Shell is currently considering building a cracker in Pennsylvania, a major fracking center, and is seeking big tax breaks for the project.

But even industry insiders questioned the report's optimistic job claims. Vikram Rao, a member of North Carolina's new Energy and Mining Commission and a former chief technology officer at fracking pioneer Halliburton, expressed his doubt to the News & Observer of Raleigh.

"I mean, come on," he told the paper in disbelief.

While the number of jobs such a plant would create may be disputed, something that's certain is that the facility would emit a lot of highly toxic pollution.

Consider the experience of Norco, La., a community about 24 miles west of New Orleans where Shell Oil -- the Houston-based subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell -- operates a major ethane cracker (photo above). In 2010 alone, Shell's Norco plant released over 480,000 pounds of toxic pollution to the air, including large quantities of chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory of self-reported data. Those releases included:

* more than 34,000 pounds of 1,3-butadiene, which is classified by the federal government as a chemical known to cause cancer;

* more than 55,000 pounds of benzene, known to damage the blood and immune system and to cause blood cancer;

* more than 6,000 pounds of ethylbenzene, classified as a possible human carcinogen and linked to kidney damage in exposed animals;

* more than 45,000 pounds of naphthalene, which has been shown to cause tumors in mice and is considered a possible human carcinogen;

* more than 1,000 pounds of polycyclic aromatic compounds, probable human carcinogens that are also linked to lower IQ and asthma in children with high prenatal exposure;

* more than 2,300 pounds of styrene, a possible carcinogen;

* more than 30,000 pounds of toluene, which can affect the nervous system and cause loss of strength, memory, hearing and color vision; and

* more than 13,000 pounds of xylene, which can damage the lungs, liver and kidneys.

Shell's Norco facility is blamed for serious health problems among residents of an African-American neighborhood that found itself right on the plant's fenceline after an expansion. Facing South visited the community last year and reported on residents' experience.

After two people died in a 1973 explosion triggered by someone starting a lawnmower above one of the plant's leaking underground pipelines, Diamond residents formed a group called Concerned Citizens of Norco to demand relocation. In 2002, Shell finally agreed to buy out Diamond residents, who had grown so frightened by the plant's frequent accidents that some of them slept fully clothed in case they had to flee in the night.

Iris Carter, an activist with Concerned Citizens and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health advocacy group, reported unusually high rates of cancer and the autoimmune disease scleroderma among people from the Diamond community, where she lived much of her life. Scleroderma has been linked to exposure to petrochemical solvents. Carter and her daughter were also diagnosed with environmentally-related asthma, while her sister suffered from a rare blood cancer.

"We didn't know it was dangerous," said Carter, who in the photo above is standing in front of Shell's Norco cracker. "Sometimes what you don't know can hurt you."

(Photo by Sue Sturgis.)