Nearly a year ago, in April, a Houston, Texas, company announced plans to invest more than $1 billion into a plastics processing plant along the banks of the Susquehanna River near Northumberland.
Encina plans to process approximately 450,000 tons of plastic waste at the facility – those plastics being shipped in from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other nearby metropolitan hubs to the banks of our river. The goal is to process the plastic waste in the presence of very high heat and a proprietary catalyst to produce chemicals that can be used to make new plastic items.
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During construction of the plant, Encina estimates the need for 700 to 800 workers, but once the site is fully operational, it would employ approximately 300 with an average annual salary of $75,000. However, a spokesperson has later shared that the salary figure includes a small number of higher-paying engineer positions and that the annual salary of the average worker will not reach that figure.
The economic development group DRIVE, based in Danville, is estimating upwards of $2.3 billion in economic impact from the project, and that since there is no other facility doing what Encina proposes at this site, the plant could “put central PA” on the map.
While, in theory, this all sounds promising for the region, it is hard to ignore the numerous open-ended question marks surrounding this project and its potential environmental impact on the Susquehanna River.
For one, there is no track record for such a facility – at the proposed scale – using the methods Encina has in mind to efficiently and safely recycle large amounts of plastic.
They are an out-of-state company with no real local ties that wants to use our river and our proximity to major urbanized areas in Philly, NYC, Pittsburgh and Baltimore to make a profit while handling compounds that carry a laundry list of health concerns.
One of which, the chief catalyst for the chemical reaction they plan to use, is a known carcinogenic when in fibrous form. While, in theory, the catalyst should be used up during such a reaction, there is no steadfast data to show how much may escape the process and wind up in our environment.
(*Update as of 2/24/23: Other, non-fibrous, forms of the catalyst are not carcinogenic and are used in certain everyday products. Encina recently shared that it does not plan to use the fibrous form. We are hoping to find out soon specifically which form of this catalyst they will be using and any potential risks (or lack thereof) may be associated with it.))
The chemicals they would extract from their process, benzene, toluene, xylene and propylene (sometimes abbreviated BTX/P) have been associated with a number of health effects in humans including nervous damage/dysfunction, potential liver and kidney damage, birth defects and cancer.
The site is anticipated to draw upwards of 2.5 million gallons of water per day from the Susquehanna River, returning two-thirds of that after a variety of uses, including the cleaning of plastic materials. While there are strict guidelines about the quality of the water returned to the river, even a small fluctuation in temperature or contaminants could have an immediate ripple effect in the river both locally and downstream.
There have been some interesting developments from a regulatory standpoint concerning this plant. Because they are pursuing permits under an “advanced recycling” classification vs. waste management or waste incineration, former Governor Tom Wolf’s administration exempted the facility from having to obtain a solid waste permit and the additional protections that would provide.
The company plans to develop the site in two phases – the first would accept, clean and sort plastics. The advanced/chemical recycling aspect of the process isn’t planned until Phase 2.
Yet another concern is that the facility is located within the 100-year floodplain of the Susquehanna River. Even with extremely cautious and mindful construction of the site, what are the odds of a potentially massive negative impact on the river the next time it swells to an advanced flood stage?
Finally, does Encina have the resources to completely redefine a plastics industry that is currently only seeing and utilizing a 5 to 6 percent recycling rate? If not, the whole premise of this plant falls apart. What plan is there for facilitating the cutback of companies making first-time plastic products?
Ultimately, all of this leads to many more questions than answers for us, and there is much to learn to really know what the greater impact of this project will be. We hope to have more open conversations with Encina, with state agencies and with local individuals and families about all of this.
In an effort to facilitate that open dialogue, we encourage you to share your thoughts about the Encina project via this online survey. It will help us gauge how much the local public knows – and wants to know – about all of this and will help us prepare for another round of discussions with Encina and local groups connected to the project.
Any responses used will only be done so anonymously.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.