petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic
Shell's petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania. (Credit: Nate Smallwood for Environmental Health News and Sierra Magazine)

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

A new database launched yesterday tracks petrochemical accidents across the U.S. and highlights the dangers that these fires and spills pose to nearby communities.

Beyond Petrochemicals, a campaign by Bloomberg Philanthropies*, launched the tool dubbed Spill Tracker, which will comb through news and government reports of petrochemical accidents that involve harmful chemicals like vinyl chloride, ammonia and benzene.

Vinyl chloride is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a carcinogen, and has been linked to higher rates of lung and liver cancer, as well as liver disease, neurological problems and miscarriage. Benzene is a known carcinogen as well. These are just two of the common pollutants at the plants; others include PM2.5, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, formaldehyde, ethylene oxide, nitrogen oxides, and ground-level ozone.

Petrochemicals are chemicals derived from petroleum and are largely used to make plastics and fertilizers, which, together, account for 74% of produced petrochemicals. The plants are often clustered together, bolstering the risk for nearby communities. The largest concentration is along the Houston Ship Channel, which has hundreds of oil and gas facilities and was recently dubbed a “sacrifice zone” by human rights group Amnesty International. The most recent petrochemical incident, according to Spill Tracker, was four days ago in nearby Freeport, Texas, where there was an electrical fire at the Shintech Freeport Plant.

“In Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and beyond, our neighbors are going to the hospital and facing serious illness after prolonged exposure to not only the everyday pollution from the petrochemical industry but the frequent incidents caused by its production and transportation,” said Heather McTeer Toney, executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals, in a statement.

McTeer Toney pointed to last year’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to highlight that communities beyond the fenceline are in danger too. Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the East Palestine derailment.

The database will be busy. Previous reporting found the country averages a chemical accident about every other day.

“These are not isolated incidents and are absolutely preventable,” Jess Conard, East Palestine resident and Appalachia Director for Beyond Plastics, said in a statement. “We are all tired of living with this reality and together we will hold the petrochemical industry accountable.”

Visit Spill Tracker.

Editor’s note: Environmental Health News receives some funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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