By Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of PennFuture

Southwestern Pennsylvania has worked tirelessly in the last three decades to attract industries and businesses to our region that help communities and people thrive. In the process, we’ve reinvented our economy, a feat that has made the region a national model for cities working toward a broadly-based sustainable economy of renewable energy industries, medical and high-tech businesses and smart infrastructure. 

State leaders must continue this focus, bringing in businesses like the proposed Amazon headquarters that are compatible with our natural environment, our cleaner rivers, attractive parks, biking trails and investments in walkable neighborhoods.

But instead, there is a backward shift occurring — along with a frightening lack of public conversation about it — toward support of the petrochemical industry’s growth in our region. One proposed massive industrial facility in Potter Township, Beaver County, 30 miles west of Pittsburgh, will convert ethane — from fracked natural gas — into ethylene, used in many types of plastics. Emissions from this plant would contain a toxic mix of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds, such as acrolein, benzene, toluene and naphthalene — that exacerbate symptoms of asthma and cause cancer.

This same plant received a $1.65 billion taxpayer-funded tax break, which means we are paying out of pocket for polluted, toxic air. Large taxpayer-funded tax breaks should be reserved for businesses and industries that support clean energy and a clean environment. A $1.65 billion dollar tax incentive would have been far better used for the promise of 50,000 Amazon jobs instead of the scourge of polluted air and water for 600 permanent jobs at the Shell petrochemical plant, a subsidy that equates to $2,670,000 per job.

Bringing the petrochemical industry into Southwestern PA is a short-sighted economic strategy in light of the positive economic growth underway in Pittsburgh. Smart cities and regions do their best to attract medical, finance and banking, and clean industries to grow the local jobs base. Enlightened employers know that quality of life and health issues matter while hiring employees and creating new jobs. The region’s leaders should learn from past mistakes. Clean, non-polluting industries are the ones that deserve billion-dollar tax breaks, not dirty industries that will make workers and people sick, paving the way for a new Cancer Alley right in our own backyards.

This is why today, PennFuture is launching the #ToxicNeighbor campaign, a regional citizen engagement campaign that aims to build a new generation of clean air activists who will put pressure on elected and business leaders who have brought us to this point, specifically when it comes to Shell and U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.

Shell’s massive polluting petrochemical plant may be located in Beaver County, but communities across Allegheny County and beyond will be affected because pollution travels. This is the last thing Pittsburgh needs, as a city that already suffers from one of the poorest air quality ratings in the state, according to the American Lung Association.

We are a region that must band together against big polluters who have one motive: increased profits. Can residents of Allegheny County ignore the pollution load that Beaver County residents will bear, another county with exceedingly poor air quality? The answer is no. This type of pollution affects us all, and it could be the beginning of a boom of petrochemical development in the region, which would create a Cancer Alley that creates injustice and pain for people in its wake.

PennFuture’s Toxic Neighbor citizen engagement campaign intentionally coincides with the exhibit currently underway in Downtown Pittsburgh, “Petrochemical America: From Cancer Alley to Toxic Valley.” We encourage everyone to view this exhibit firsthand and learn more about this polluting industry. Get a glimpse of what could happen to your region if these developments and leadership mistakes continue. It’s time to get informed, get angry and let your voice be heard.

The citizens of Pennsylvania demand and deserve strong leaders who support a brighter, healthier future for our region. Sign the petition, take action and stay involved. We need you. Visit toxicneighbor.org to sign the petition today. For more information on what you can do about U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works air pollution violations, visit toxicneighborpgh.org.