Dow’s Polymer Center, known locally as Plant B, consists of fifty distinct plants. In her book Plastic: a toxic love story, Susan Freinkel writes that each plant produces a different plastic resin or chemical ingredient: polyethylene, polycarbonate, polypropylene, polystyrene.
The plastic comes in the form of rice-sized pellets known as “nurdles.” Millions of pounds of nurdles leave the Dow Freeport plant every day, filling up railcar after railcar. The trains take them to trucks or ships, which take them to manufacturing plants across the world.
All those nurdles come back to us as cell phone cases and car parts. Toothbrushes, toy soldiers, and pace makers. Frisbees, fleece, dental floss. Those tiny, flexible tubes that deliver nutrients to premature babies.
But the largest proportion — almost 40% of all plastic — goes into packaging: grocery bags, milk jugs, blister packs. Stuff made to be thrown out.
The other product that comes from the plants: pollution. The single largest component of chemicals released into the air in Brazoria County in 2012 was ethylene, a raw ingredient of plastic created by heating up oil or natural gas to “crack” apart their molecules.
Dow Chemical accounted for nearly half the ethylene released in Brazoria County. Ethylene is volatile. It reacts readily in the atmosphere to create ozone smog.
During a heat wave in June of 2012, an ozone pollution monitor in Brazoria County hit 136 parts per billion, nearly twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe over the long term. The region has never met the safety standard EPA set in 2008.
The American Medical Association and a bunch of other doctors’ groups have called for that standard to be set even higher, because smog attacks the lungs. It can lead to asthma attacks, and, over time, cause permanent lung damage.
Children are most vulnerable to smog, because they breathe more per pound of body weight than adults do. New science has also found links between ozone and heart attacks and strokes in adults.
But when I visited Melanie Oldham a few weeks ago, she wasn’t thinking about smog. She was worried about chlorine. That’s what she traveled to Houston and waited six hours to speak about to Environmental Protection Agency officials.
Dow recently completed construction of a new “world-scale chlor-alkali facility” in Freeport. The plant creates chlorine by running an electrical current through salt water.
Chlorine is produced in very high volumes in the U.S. for a bunch of industrial purposes, including treating drinking water and creating pesticides and polyvinyl chloride plastic. The trade group EuroChlor has created a lovely chlorine tree showing all its uses.
The problem is that chlorine is also incredibly dangerous. It was used as poison gas in World War I. When a person breathes in chlorine, it breaks down into hydrochloric acid, burning the lungs and causing them to fill with liquid — death by drowning.
A U.S. Department of Transportation report found chlorine among the most dangerous substances to transport. A Dow worker at Freeport died in 2006 when a valve cap blew off, sending chlorine into his face.
Last year Dow announced it is selling off its chlorine plants in Freeport, with a buyer yet to be identified. Among Melanie’s requests to EPA: require the new owner to make chlorine only as needed so it doesn’t have to store large quantities, and transport the chlorine using the safest rail cars available.
At dinner that night, I noticed that Melanie’s black-and-white plaid suit jacket had a rhinestone cross on the back, with angels’ wings above it. I asked her about this later—whether the jacket was supposed to help make her case to the EPA.
But Melanie didn’t have time to discuss fashion with me. She texted that Dow had just published its application for a new ethylene plant at Freeport, its largest ethylene plant anywhere, and her group had thirty days to comment on it.