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On the Ginseng Patrol in Appalachian Ohio

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Ginseng grower Tom Johnson goes on regular foot patrols through his property in Scioto County, Ohio in an effort to deter ginseng thefts. At first, Johnson posted signs against trespassing throughout his property, but when that didn’t work, he took to patrolling — and shooting at dead trees — throughout his property to try to deter thieves. Photo by Eileen Guo

On a warm day in the middle of an unseasonably dry October, I drive past cornfields, ranch homes, and hollers to meet 70-year-old farmer Tom Johnson.

Johnson and his wife, as well as two grown sons and their families, live on the same land that his great-great-great grandfather homesteaded, nearly two centuries before. But unlike his ancestors, Johnson is not overseeing rows of corn or grain: His “crops” are hardwoods — oak, walnut, and poplar — between which sprout native plants like goldenseal, black cohosh, and — his pet project — American ginseng.

Ginseng, a medicinal root historically grown and consumed in East Asia, grows naturally up and down the ridges of Appalachia and north into Canada. An early export of the American colonies, it occasioned the first trade contact that the new world had with the Far East and, according to some scholars, even helped finance the Revolutionary War.

Tom Johnson shows off a handful of his wild-simulated ginseng roots in Scioto County, Ohio. Ginseng was first discovered by Europeans in Canada in 1716, and has been traded in Appalachia since the 1750s. Photo by Eileen Guo

First discovered in Canada in 1716 (by the Europeans, anyway — Native Americans had long used it for its medicinal properties), the American ginseng trade started in earnest in the 1750s, after the Canadian trade collapsed. John Jacob Astor, better known for his real estate fortune around New York City, was one of America’s first traders, making $55,000 on his first shipment. Appalachian native son Daniel Boone was less lucky on his first try, losing his first shipment of 12 tons of roots in 1788 when his ship capsized in the Ohio River. He didn’t give up though, leading to the eventual accrual of a vast family fortune that, despite popular belief, came from ginseng rather than the fur trade.

Today, the root continues to be a valuable commodity, with demand — and high prices — driven, just as in the olden days, by markets in East Asia, where it is prized both as a medicine and, increasingly as a status symbol. Rich collectors will sometimes pay thousands of dollars for the more uniquely shaped, multi-pronged specimens — which happen to grow well in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains.

While Wisconsin is the United States’ largest producer of ginseng, responsible for 98 percent of the 590,000 pounds of the root exported in 2016, for those in the know, Appalachian ginseng is preferred. This is because, in Wisconsin, they are grown on monoculture farms, losing much of the unique, knotty shape of wild ginseng, as well as the ginsenosides, the pharmacological properties that make it so potent. In contrast, the Appalachian variety still grows in the wild or, increasingly, in wild-simulated conditions, where it is planted and cared for in environments that closely resemble its native ecosystem.

Ginseng is a sensitive, slow-growing plant that takes five to ten years to reach maturity, in the wild or under wild-simulated conditions. It grows best in moist, well-aerated soil on shady slopes with good drainage — the kind of terrain found throughout central Appalachia. But it’s a beloved food for native animals, from wild turkey, squirrels, and mice that dig up the seeds to deer that prefer its leaves.

But if the ginseng can survive to harvest, it pays off. A pound of dried wild-simulated ginseng can sell for several hundred dollars, or higher, depending on its size and shape. The most that Johnson has ever made was $425 per dried pound.  

Ginseng’s high price is great news, in theory, for wild ginseng growers as well as “hunters” (as foragers for the root are known). But Tom Johnson and countless others have discovered that its lucrative value also makes ginseng attractive to thieves.

On a recent patrol, Ohio Department of Natural Resources officer and lifelong ginseng enthusiast Jeff Barry points out a patch of woods where he has found ginseng in the past. Photo by Eileen Guo

Tom Johnson has been planting ginseng for some twenty-odd years. The first time that he was poached was when he was out of town attending a conference focused on forest farming. “I can still remember,” the septuagenarian says of the event, “this older guy stood up, and he said, ‘boy this would be a perfect time for your thieves to go in and steal.’”  

“So I come home,” he continues, “and sure enough, there was an area, probably 20 by 20, that looked like hogs had been in there. They dug everything.” He suspects that the thieves had been watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike when he was away.  

This is a tactic that is familiar to Ohio State Wildlife Officer, Jeff Barry, one of the foremost protectors of ginseng within the state’s Department of Natural Resources. He operates in Muskingham County some 150 miles north of Johnson’s tree farm, but he says that it’s common for theft to happen at times when the farmers are known to be away. One example of this, he says, is during county fairs, when “grandpa’s there, the farms [are] left open, and these guys [the thieves] hit.”

After  Johnson’s first incidence of poaching, he tried everything to deter theft, from putting up signs to setting up surveillance cameras, but nothing worked. The trespassers would simply tear down the signs and while the cameras were capturing photos of ginseng hunters, neither he nor local law enforcement could identify the thieves to prosecute them. Johnson believed that they were coming from out of town.

For the most part, law enforcement was not a huge help in prosecuting theft. In the beginning, he called the local wildlife officer. “Some of them would come out and say, yeah, you’ve been poached,” but without catching anyone with ginseng in hand, there was little that they could do.  

Ohio wildlife officer Jeff Barry enters data after a recent ginseng patrol in Muskingham County. Barry has become known among for his doggedness in pursuing ginseng thieves in Appalachian Ohio. Photo by Eileen Guo

Part of the issue was that most law enforcement agents, especially non-wildlife officers, didn’t really understand ginseng theft. Federal laws and regulations around ginseng harvesting have been more geared towards the plant’s conservation, since over-harvesting led to its near-extinction in the 1970s. As a result, in 1975, American ginseng was designated an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authority regulate the trade.

Today, 19 states currently allow for the harvesting of wild ginseng, but under very specific conditions: in season (typically around Sept. 1-Nov. 30), with a license, with strict limits, and only of mature plants with three leaves each (guaranteeing that they are at least five years old.)

But some of the requirements — such as a license to dig ginseng — only refers to digging on public land. And so, even the terminology to describe a crime — “poaching” — referring specifically to public land, leaves many confused about what exactly is happening on Johnson’s private property. What many, including the sheriffs and judges, don’t realize is that it’s still stealing: “Not my corn, not my cattle, they’re stealing my ginseng,” says Johnson.

The farmer is quick to add that he doesn’t have a problem with law enforcement, “Especially now, in Scioto County … we have a lot of bigger problems than poaching ginseng.”

Scioto County is at the heart of the country’s opioid crisis. Portsmouth, Ohio, which has earned the dubious moniker of “Pill Mill of America” and was the subject of the acclaimed book, Dreamland, on the spread of opioids across America, is just next door. In December alone, 33 people were indicted in Portsmouth for their involvement in a drug trafficking ring.

Beyond keeping law enforcement occupied, the opioid crisis has also affected ginseng theft. “If you have a drug habit, you can go out and steal my ginseng and get enough money for a hit,” he says.

So while he empathizes with the priorities of law enforcement, he did realize that he needed to take things into his own hands. And he thought to himself, “If I were a thief, what would defer me from being on somebody’s property trying to steal their ginseng? If someone is out there shooting, I’d probably think, I’ll go to the next guy’s farm.”

He started heading out into the woods on his twice-weekly foot patrols, accompanied by his 22-caliber, semi-automatic rifle. He’d walk, choose a spot, and then shoot, always aiming at one of the dead trees on his property — never with the intention of hurting anyone, but rather to make any potential thieves aware that he was out there, and that he was watching.

He’s had a few close calls. Once, he shot at one of his dead trees just to have a man emerge from right behind it. The man had been down on the ground digging, and he believed that Johnson purposefully tried to shoot him. That was not the case, Johnson says, but still, the man left. And without any ginseng. Other times, he caught the poachers in the act, but they would just drop the ginseng and go. And, on a few occasions, the thieves actually shot back, though never accurate enough to do any damage.

Johnson believes that his armed patrols have helped, though he’s still lost plenty of ginseng. Of the million or so seeds that he estimates to have planted in his twenty years growing, he says that “ten times as much as I’ve dug” has been stolen.

Johnson turned 71 in the fall, and at his age, he also wonders how long he’ll be able to continue cultivating the slow-growing plant. The root takes years before reaching maturity, and after so much of it has been stolen, he is no longer sure that he has the time or the energy to keep up.

What’ll happen after he’s gone? Though he first went ginseng hunting as a child with his grandfather, he purposefully hasn’t passed on his love of the root to his own grandchildren. So the ginseng theft represents not just a financial loss, but also a lost opportunity for new generations of Appalachians to learn about their heritage.  “I really … hesitate to have my granddaughters out in the woods,” he says, “with the poachers and the thieves that I’ve encountered, I don’t think it would be wise.”

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A Regional Focus on Health Care, Community by Community

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Understanding Appalachia requires coming to grips with the complexities and challenges of rural healthcare.

It means understanding that addiction isn’t just an opioid issue, as methamphetamines make a comeback in our communities. It means understanding that health goals reflect a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs chart from one community to the next, and that how we define wellness is as diverse and place-based as other forms of Appalachian culture. It means understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in the creative ways that our communities tackle addiction, vaccines, mental health, access and affordability.

With support from Jim and Alexis Pugh, we hired a part-time editor/reporter for developing this beat. We’d like to introduce him to our readers and invite story pitches for tackling this topic together.

— 100 Days in Appalachia

Introduce yourself to the 100 Days audience. How does your background inform your perspective on health and health care issues in Appalachia?

I’ve been covering rural health throughout the Southeast for some years now. Appalachian born, in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I began writing about health care on a regular basis in 2008 with a series of articles on the breakdown of the mental health care system in North Carolina. I then began to more fully appreciate the complexity of health care issues and the range of repercussions of the decisions we make societally about health care.

I worked for a couple of years under a grant to cover rural health issues in North Carolina, and that job allowed me to spend a lot of time on two-lane roads – those roads William Least Heat-Moon coined the “blue highways” for the color in which they appeared on old Rand McNally maps. I’ve since been doing the same work as a freelancer, from the Finger Lakes region of New York to the Mexico border. I love driving those roads, realizing that I’m now somewhere I’ve never been before, then arriving at my destination and exploring how the issues this particular community is grappling with are the same and different as others elsewhere.

I’m looking forward to now returning my focus to Appalachia. I divide my time between Nashville, Tennessee, and Carrboro, North Carolina. I make the trek between those two cities every couple of weeks, and whenever I’m headed west and begin the climb up Old Fort Mountain or headed east and hit Pigeon River Gorge, I feel the tug. It’s less than a hundred-mile stretch, but it’s so distinctly Appalachia.

With 100 Days, I’m psyched to reorient along a roughly north-south axis, unfolding this region that ambles from Schoharie County, New York, to Kemper County Mississippi. Granted, much of this work will be done from my desk in Nashville or Carrboro. But I’ll always be looking forward to that next excursion.

Of course, not all of Appalachia is rural. I do enjoy Appalachia’s metropolitan areas, love discovering them anew, and look forward to further delving into their particular health care issues and successes.

Urban or rural, I’m intrigued by the role that place plays in the health care issues communities face and in their outcomes. I’m so looking forward to witnessing Appalachia.

When people see that we’re launching a health vertical, it might seem like we’re late to the game, that any number of outlets already have a strongly established focus on issues in this area. In what ways do you hope to lead the conversation about health in Appalachia?

Appalachia is facing some considerable health care challenges. In addition to the rising costs of care, rural communities are experiencing diminishing access to services, including hospital closures, and difficulties in recruiting health care professionals. Rural and urban communities alike have been particularly hard hit by opioids.

But Appalachia isn’t a monolithic region, and there are nuances to these issues from one sub-region to the next, from community to community. While underscoring shared concerns, I intend to draw out those distinctions. I most especially want to bring attention to the particular ways in which communities are finding solutions

When I write that I’m from Western North Carolina, I capitalize the “W,” as those in the region commonly do – because beyond identifying the region geographically, “Western” is an integral part of a proper noun, denoting cultural distinctions. I could ramble on about what those distinctions are – the libertarian instinct, etc. My point is that place matters. Murphy, North Carolina, in the far southwestern corner of WNC, is 355 miles from Raleigh, the state capital.

There are four other state capitals closer to Murphy. To assume that all North Carolinians share a sense of place, an identity, would be a mistake. I want to explore the contours of geography and culture, and how they shape health, health care, attitudes, practice and policies.  

I intend to report on the challenges individual communities are facing and their responses to those challenges, and on decisions that the federal and state governments make and the outcomes of those decisions – whether to expand Medicaid coverage, for example, and the implications of that decision.  

Are there any specific topics you think media outlets outside of the region do a bad job of covering here or that have perpetuated stereotypes of the people in Appalachia? In what ways do you hope to challenge those views?

I think there’s a perception that Appalachia is waiting for a handout, that people in the region are expecting the federal government to solve all their problems. I hope to help counter that narrative.

The first piece I wrote for 100 Days was titled “New Report Cites Economic Woes, Addiction and Optimism in Appalachia.” It was about the results of a survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health titled “Life in Rural America.” Those results underscored the loss of jobs and the scourge of addiction. But the researchers also found that rural Americans are largely optimistic about their future, placing their faith in a shared sense of community. I described how that sense of community is expressed in Moorefield, West Virginia.

I strive to take a solutions-oriented approach to my work. I’ve written about the closures, mergers and acquisitions of hospitals and the ripple effects they have on communities. That’s certainly an issue today in Appalachia. In reporting on these transactions, I’ve described how communities have responded – at times, rebelled.

I intend to tell the stories of ground-level, multi-fronted responses to the health care challenges Appalachian communities are experiencing.

The focus outside, and inside, the region, in terms of covering health in Appalachia, is largely focused on the opioid epidemic. In what ways do you hope to shine a new light or further the conversation around this topic?

I refer to my answer to the previous question: solutions. Whenever possible, I intend to report on solutions.

Recently, I attended a listening session hosted by the Appalachian Regional Commission in the small town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The objective was to discuss workforce issues related to the opioid epidemic. Participants brainstormed job-placement strategies and how communities can engage substance-abuse treatment programs, recovery initiatives and other services. They shared information on available resources in the community. People had driven up to three hours to attend – health care professionals, business owners, social workers, elected officials, academics, law-enforcement officers and plain-old concerned citizens. It was an impressive display of solution-oriented community resolve.

I’ve reported on naloxone initiatives, needle-exchange programs, law-enforcement assisted diversion programs and health care professionals assisting mother and child in alleviating the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome, addressing the stigma attached to medical-assisted treatment. I’ve ridden along with a peer support specialist who helps former inmates in recovery and others who assist those exiting the criminal justice system.

I intend to remain attentive to programs focused on the treatment, care and recovery of those with substance-use disorders and on the prevention of addiction, but with an eye toward how we are solving these problems in our communities.

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Distress Grows For Ohio Valley Farmers As Trade Deals Stall

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Barry Alexander with a handful of yellow soybeans. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

West Kentucky Farmer Barry Alexander doesn’t have an answer on when the Trump administration will reach a trade deal with China, now a year into tariffs that have hamstrung some Ohio Valley industries.

Listen to the story from the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Alexander is optimistic these continued negotiations will be worth it, but his plan in the meantime lies in massive, silver storage bins on Cundiff Farms, the 13,000-acre operation he manages.

He pulls a lever, and out tumbles a downpour of pale yellow soybeans.

Video: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“These beans have been in here since Halloween day,” Alexander said. “The large bin on the right, that’s 350,000 bushels. The next-size bins down, that’s 180,000 bushels. To give reference, a thousand bushels is one semi-truck load.”

He’s been trying to hold onto about half of his soybean and corn bushels, waiting to see if he can sell for a better price before he’s forced to start planting again in early April.

Crop prices have crashed partly because of Chinese tariffs, and the losses have put a strain on some farmers he knows.

Barry Alexander, a lifelong west Kentucky farmer, in his small office. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“There are farmers that have decided to retire because they didn’t want to work through these things now. We’re to that point,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he’s survived in part because his sprawling farm has resources to work with: eight full-time employees, two new $550,000 combines he traded up for, and the storage bins to help ride out bad crop prices.

“Our large structures are not cheap, but financially for our farming operation, they’re a necessity for us to do what we do,” Alexander said.

Farmers like Alexander are coping with losses from tariffs and a continuing trade war, and it’s not clear when it will end. A March 1 deadline for negotiations with China was delayed indefinitely by President Trump, and an agreement with Mexico and Canada that Trump signed in November has yet to be ratified by Congress. The retaliatory tariffs on U.S. crops and dairy remain, compounding problems caused by overproduction and low crop prices, and small farmers are suffering the most.

Massive, steel storage bins, half-full with grain, on Cundiff Farms in west Kentucky. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

Size Matters

“If you look at all the large farmers, these guys have the storage facilities to wait out bad prices,” Kent State University-Tuscarawas Agribusiness Professor Sankalp Sharma said. “For a lot of these small guys…they couldn’t actually store their commodity, they still had to deal with those lower prices.”

Sharma and others argue grain prices have been low for five years because farmers are overproducing, and tariffs are only making the situation worse.

“The United States soybean harvest this year in general was just crazy. There was a bumper crop, and prices were down because of that,” Sharma said. “This was just your classic demand and supply situation.”

Both Ohio and Kentucky set records for soybean harvests in 2018: 289 million bushels and 103 million bushels, respectively. This is up significantly compared to two decades ago, when Ohio harvested 162 million bushels and Kentucky harvested a little over 24 million bushels in 1999.

Farmers are also becoming more efficient than ever before — Ohio set records in 2018 for most corn and soybean bushels produced per acre.

Oversupply problems haven’t been limited to grains, though. Small dairy farmers are also dealing with excess supply and tariffs, with hundreds of cases of extra milk being dumped at Ohio Valley food banks.

Farms At Risk

Greg Gibson’s operation is small, but his family has made it work for decades. He milks 80 cows at his dairy farm in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, and he took over the operation in 2002. The past year of tariffs hasn’t been easy.

“Everything’s down. Historically, if milk price is down you can sell some corn or you could sell some replacement animals are something,” Gibson said. “But nothing has a lot of value to sell right now, so it’s really hard to generate any additional revenue. And a lot of that is because of the trade problems we’re having.”

Like many Ohio Valley farmers, Gibson is receiving payments from the $12 billion in federal relief from the Market Facilitation Program intended to to help those who suffer losses from tariffs.

Small farms are squeezed by the dairy crisis. Photo: Nicole Erwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

Gibson appreciates Trump’s efforts to renegotiate trade deals, and like Alexander, is cautiously hopeful about the prospects of new trade deals.

But he said he’s also disappointed in Trump because the payments are not nearly enough to recoup his losses. He says milk’s price has plummeted nearly a dollar per hundred pounds of milk sold and the payments only reimburse 12 cents of that.

“I would have rather him said ‘I got to do this. You’re going to take the hit. Sorry.’ Don’t promise me you’re going to take care of me and then don’t,” Gibson said.

Some commodity associations including the National Corn Growers Association and the National Milk Producers Federation have called on the Trump administration in past months to bolster what they call lackluster relief payments.

Gibson’s squeezed budget has had him extend paying off his farm loans and put off paying several repair bills. He’s also had to put up his 150-year-old family farm as collateral for his loans.

Farm lenders say Gibson’s situation isn’t unique right now. Senior Vice President of Agricultural Lending Mark Barker helps oversee lending for Farm Credit Mid-America, which serves most of Ohio and Kentucky.

“Are we doing things differently? Well, sure,” Barker said. “Because we have customers coming in now and telling us ‘I’m struggling at this point. I’m challenged.’”

Barker said while most people are making their loan payments right now, the rapidly increasing amount of debt farmers are taking on to deal with depressed prices is concerning, especially for smaller operations.

“It seems like the larger producers, you think about their equipment and everything else, they’ve got some added advantages,” Barker said. “It doesn’t mean the smaller producer is necessarily ‘out,’ but I do think they got more challenges in this current environment.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture economists predict nationwide farm debt will reach $263.7 billion in 2019, levels of debt not seen since the 1980s farm crisis, when thousands of farm families defaulted on their loans amidst a trade embargo with the Soviet Union and high loan interest rates.

New Farmers

Tom McConnell leads the Small Farm Center at West Virginia University’s Extension Service and tries to help small farms succeed, in a state that has the highest proportion of small farms in the nation. He’s lived through the 1980s farm crisis and saw many dairy and beef farmers lose their farms.

He said one solution for small farmers to withstand these depressed prices is to switch to crops that bring a higher value, like vegetables. But those can be more labor-intensive, and the transition can be difficult.

“If you’ve been in a family that has milked cows or grown row crops for three generations, and I suggest you grow three acres of sweet corn and five acres of snap beans, there will be some resistance to that,” McConnell said.

McConnell said it might take a new generation to redefine what a successful small farmer business model can look like.

One of those younger small farmers is Joseph Monroe, who moved from Indiana to central Kentucky to raise beef cattle and grow tomatoes and greens. Monroe believes a way forward for smaller farms is to find ways to work together to sell products and have a greater market impact.

“I think there needs to be some pioneers and some examples out there of how to draw up a contract to work together,” Monroe said. “I think we need to throw all the darts and see what hits.”Share on Twitter

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?

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Gas processing plants like this MarkWest plant in Butler County, Pennsylvania, separate natural gas liquids from natural gas. Photo: James Bruggers

With the natural gas fracking boom, plastics production is spreading in the Ohio River Valley. But at what cost to health and climate?

MONACA, Pennsylvania — Along the banks of the Ohio River here, thousands of workers are assembling the region’s first ethane cracker plant. It’s a conspicuous symbol of a petrochemical and plastics future looming across the Appalachian region.

More than 70 construction cranes tower over hundreds of acres where zinc was smelted for nearly a century. In a year or two, Shell Polymers, part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell, plans to turn what’s called “wet gas” into plastic pellets that can be used to make a myriad of products, from bottles to car parts.

Two Asian companies could also announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio. There’s a third plastics plant proposed for West Virginia.

With little notice nationally, a new petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub may be taking shape along 300 miles of the upper reaches of the Ohio River, from outside Pittsburgh southwest to Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. It would be fueled by a natural gas boom brought on by more than a decade of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that has already dramatically altered the nation’s energy landscape—and helped cripple coal.

But there’s a climate price to be paid. Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050.

Map: Ethane Cracker Plants on the Ohio River

Despite the climate and environmental risks, state and business leaders and the Trump administration are promoting plastics and petrochemical development as the next big thing, more than three decades after the region’s steel industry collapsed and as Appalachian coal mining slumps.

“We have been digging our way out of a very deep hole for decades,” said Jack Manning, president and executive director of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce.

“When Shell came along with a $6-to-$7 billion investment … we were in the right spot at the right time,” he said.

Everyone wants jobs and economic growth, said Cat Lodge, who works with communities in the Ohio River Valley affected by the shale gas industry for the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental group. But not everyone wants them to be based on another form of polluting, fossil fuels, she said.

“While the rest of the world is dealing with global warming, Pennsylvania and Ohio and West Virginia are embracing developing plastics, and that just appalls me,” Lodge says. “It’s just not something I see as the future and unfortunately that seems to be the push to make that the future. And that’s upsetting.”

Lodge and her husband moved from Pittsburgh to the countryside 18 years ago in search of fresh air and open land. They have a small farm in a corner of rural western Pennsylvania, where winding roads trace the contours of Appalachian hills and a stark transition fueled by a shale gas boom is underway.

“We still love it, but little by little, and quickly over the last several years, we have become totally surrounded by the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Rising Demand, but Also Pushback on Plastics

The natural gas that’s pulled from deep underground in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations has done more than outcompete coal for electricity generation.

Drilling companies have also extracted a lot of natural gas liquids, particularly ethane, also called wet gas. It’s used to produce ethylene, which then gets turned into plastics, providing an additional revenue stream for the oil and gas industry. It’s the industry’s latest play, and it comes at a time when industry analysts and the federal government say the demand for plastics is skyrocketing.

Illustration: Plastics: From the Gas Plant to Your Home

“These materials are hooked into just about every part of the economy, from housing to electronics to packaging,” said Dave Witte, a senior vice president at IHS Markit, a global data and information service. “Today, the world needs six of these plants to be built every year to keep up with demand growth.”

IHS Markit calls the Appalachian or upper Ohio River region “the Shale Crescent.” Last year, it reported that the region’s gas supplies could support as many as five large cracker plants, like the one Shell is building. The plants “crack” ethane molecules to make ethylene and polyethylene resin pellets and would be in close proximity to a number of manufacturers that use those products to make everything from paints to plastic bags.

Chart: 3 States' Natural Gas Boom

IHS does see some headwinds, including an international backlash against plastics. It published a report last summer that found that worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.”

The oil and gas industry might find themselves with stranded assets, needing to abandon Ohio River valley communities, said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a Pennsylvania-based organizer for the Environmental Integrity Project.

“Do they really care,” she asked, “if they can make money for the first 10 years or 20 years of their operation, but then plastic goes away in the world? What happens to the communities that are left behind?”

She said she is also worried about such a major investment in oil and gas as the world grapples with the effects of climate change.

Visions of an Appalachian Plastics Hub

The idea for a plastics hub in Appalachia got a lift in December with a reportto Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy. It described a proposal for the development of regional underground storage of ethane along or underneath the upper Ohio River.

Storage is needed to help provide a steady and reliable stream of ethane to ethane cracking plants, and it would be important for the development of a regional petrochemical complex in the upper Ohio River valley, the report concluded.

Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers
Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers

A West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group LLC, has proposed developing storage for ethane, possibly in mined salt or limestone cavernsdeep underground. It’s in the second phase of an application process for $1.9 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy for the project, according to the department.

“We have sites of interest in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia,” said Jamie Altman, a representative of Appalachia Development Group. “We are aggressively pursuing private capital.”

The Energy Department is thinking big, too.

Its report projects ethane production in the Appalachian basin would continue rapid growth through 2025 to a total of 640,000 barrels per day, more than 20 times greater than five years ago. By 2050, the agency said ethane production in the region is projected to reach 950,000 barrels per day.

China Energy signed an agreement with West Virginia in 2017 to potentially invest $84 billion in shale gas development and chemical manufacturing projects in the state. Late in January, West Virginia’s development director, Mike Graney, told state senators that China Energy was looking at three undisclosed “energy and petrochemical” projects. An announcement could be made later this year, he said, though President Donald Trump‘s trade war with China was causing delays.

Other experts see a natural gas industry that’s subject to booms and busts and question whether the region is headed down another unsustainable path, like coal.

“We are less optimistic than the industry that this will really boom out,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an environmental think tank that just published a reportdetailing how the natural gas industry in West Virginia hasn’t lived up to earlier expectations for jobs and tax revenue.

There is a huge amount of international competition for plastic production, she said. “All of the major oil exporting countries in the Middle East are talking about making massive investments in petrochemicals over the next five years or so,” she said. “That contains the risk that you will be exporting into a market that would be oversaturated with products.”

Increasing amounts of plastic waste are ending up in streams and oceans. Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images
IHS Markit, a global data and information service, published a report last summer that said worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.” Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images

The Energy Department report also cited “security and supply diversity” as a benefit of developing a new plastics and petrochemicals hub in Appalachia. The bulk of U.S. plastics and petrochemical plants are currently along the Gulf Coast, where they face supply disruptions caused by hurricanes, it said.

Vivian Stockman, the interim director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition based in West Virginia, called that a “hugely ironic” justification for an Appalachian plastics hub, since science is showing that global warming can intensify hurricanes.

Economic Benefits, with Health Concerns

The Shell plant was lured to Beaver County by Pennsylvania officials with some $1.65 billion in tax incentives. It’s scheduled to open “early next decade,” company spokesman Ray Fisher said. This year, as many as 6,000 construction workers will be working on it, and Shell says it plans 600 permanent jobs to run the plant.

It’s in Potter Township, a community with fewer than 700 residents. Rebecca Matsco, who chairs the township commission that gave Shell the local zoning permits, said she sees the plastics plant as an industrial upgrade from a dirty zinc smelter that had stood on the property for about a century, and that Shell cleaned up.

“It had become a real environmental burden, and we do feel like Shell has been a real partner in lifting that burden,” Matsco said.

Others, however, see the cracker plant as its own environmental burden—a new source of emissions that cause lung-damaging smog and heat the planet.

People in Pittsburgh were sad to see so much of the steel industry go, but they don’t miss the dirty skies, said Graves-Marcucci, an Allegheny County resident. The economic resurgence that followed was centered around health care, academic institutions and cleaner industries, she said.

Pittsburgh has been brushing off its sooty steel city past and is now pledging to slash its carbon emissions. But the Shell cracker plant alone, just 25 miles away, would emit 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, effectively wiping out nearly all the gains in carbon reduction that Pittsburgh plans to achieve by 2030, said Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer.

The Shell plant will also emit as much smog-forming pollution as 36,000 cars driving 12,000 miles year; that would equate to about a 25 percent increase in the number of cars in Beaver County, said James Fabisiak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh.

The environmental and health threats will only increase with a plastics hub buildout, and no regulators are looking at those potential cumulative impacts, Graves-Marcucci said.

Two More Communities Could Get Cracker Plants

About 70 miles southeast of the Shell plant, another community waits for news about what could be the region’s second major ethane cracker plant, in Belmont County, Ohio.

PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner, Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., could announce any day whether they intend to proceed with an ethane cracker plant after getting state permits in late December. That plant would be along a section of the Ohio River in Belmont County where hulking old manufacturing plants and shuttered businesses paint the very picture of the nation’s Rust Belt.

Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical and its partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers
Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers

“Do you know what the biggest export is from Belmont County? Our youth,” said Larry Merry, an economic development officer with the Belmont County Port Authority, overlooking the Ohio River bottomlands where the cracker plant would be constructed on the cleared-away site of a former coal-fired power plant.

Merry, who has been working to secure the plastics plant, called the oil and gas industry “a great employer for us that’s provided a lot of investment that’s helped.”

But it’s not fully made up for losses in steel and coal, and this cracker plant “is about jobs and opportunities so people can make the most of their lives,” he said.

He brushed aside any concerns about climate change or too much plastics. “How are we going to live and have products? Until you come up with a solution, don’t expect the world to shut down,” he said.

A spokesman for PTT American said he could not say when an investment decision will be made.

A third potential cracker plant is planned for Wood County, West Virginia, but it has been delayed because of unspecified “challenges” with its parent company, the Department of Energy report said.

“It just blows my mind that there could be three or four cracker plants, or even one,” said Steve White, a western Pennsylvania builder. “That’s some serious investment. It just shows you where everything is headed and how much development is coming.”

White is also a pilot, and he said he has observed from the cabin of a Cessna 3,000 feet aloft the spread of oil wells, pipelines and processing plants across shale drilling zones in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, slicing up farms and encroaching on homes, schools and businesses.

“We are just in the way,” he said.

This article was originally published by Inside Climate News.

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