Clean Air Council

Health Impact Assessment

The CDC defines a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) as “a process that helps evaluate the potential health effects of a plan, project or policy before it is built or implemented.” Simply put, HIA’s are thorough evaluations of all the public health consequences of an action (such as building a new facility, changing a policy, etc.). HIAs can be a powerful tool for communities, businesses, government, health professionals, and other stakeholders to join together to maximize the protections from any given project by reducing undesired environmental, economic, or health consequences.

The Council recently conducted an HIA over a proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Ethane is a chemical frequently found in natural gas, and with the recent boom in fracking there’s far more ethane being recovered in Pennsylvania than before. An ethane cracker takes this ethane (along with other chemicals) and makes plastics used for bags, piping, and other similar products. While it has the potential to provide a limited economic boost to the region, it also has the potential to cause serious health consequences.

What is an HIA?

As mentioned above, HIA’s are thorough examinations of a proposal’s public health impacts. But HIAs do more than just examine effects – they also include recommendations to minimize harms to the environment and public health during the planning and development stages of projects. In this way, HIAs can be a powerful tool for communities, businesses, government, health professionals, and other stakeholders to join together to maximize the benefits and minimize harms from any given project. Recently, HIAs have become more popular, as the process has often resulted in positive outcomes for both the group proposing the project or policy and the surrounding community.

Writing the HIA report itself is only one part of a larger process. The full process involves 8 steps:

  1. Screening: decide whether conducting an HIA makes sense and on what scale
  2. Scoping: select the time frame, geographic area, and types of impacts
  3. Conducting the HIA
  4. Public engagement
  5. Appraising and review of HIA report
  6. Establishing a framework for collaboration between those proposing the project and other stakeholders
  7. Providing recommendations that protect health
  8. Monitoring compliance and population-level health

Ethane Cracker in Beaver County

In March 2012 Shell announced that it was considering building an ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Beaver County is already a nonattainment zone area for ground-level ozone, meaning there’s an unsafe amount of ozone in the air. This massive facility would worsen that problem in the course of producing over 1.5 million metric tons of plastic components every year.

Initial public reaction to the facility was mixed. The Council commissioned 2 surveys on this, one phone and one online. While 54% of phone respondents supported the cracker, 72% of online respondents were strongly opposed. In both cases, a majority of respondents were concerned about pollution but interested in the potential economic boost the facility could provide.

The combination of increased pollution into already unhealthy air, public concern about this pollution, and public interest in the economic benefits made an HIA a strong option. The Council brought together its experts in public health, engineering, and law to conduct an in-depth analysis of the proposed facility, its benefits and drawbacks, and recommend improvements Shell could make. To download a copy of the HIA report, please click here. To download a copy of the Shell Ethane Cracker Fact Sheet, please click here.

Since publishing the HIA, the Council has been in talks with Shell over the proposed improvements. Shell agreed to implement a number of them, but left many more unaddressed. We are currently asking Shell to implement fenceline monitoring of the facility, meaning installing air monitors to detect pollution leaving the Cracker’s property and going into the surrounding neighborhood.

For more information please contact John Lee. His phone number is 215-567-4004 ext. 105, and his email is jlee@cleanair.org.

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