ALIQUIPPA (KDKA) — When J&L Steel hummed round the clock in Aliquippa, 10,000 steelworkers would spend their pay in the restaurants and taverns along Franklin Avenue.
That’s a far cry from the business district these days where stores are vacant and the streets almost deserted.
“It’s nothing like it used to be,” Melvin Morrisette said.
Morrisette, who worked in the mill for 31 years, is one of the few who can still remember.
But today there’s new hope. As a slag reclamation operation picks over the carcass of the old mill site, a phoenix could soon rise from the ashes.
The state is trying to turn the site into a multi-billion dollar petro-chemical refinery called a cracker which can turn the bi-products of Marcellus shale gas drilling into plastics.
Shell Oil intends to build one in the region and that has officials in Pennsylvania and neighboring Ohio and West Virginia tripping over themselves trying to offer the sweetest enticements.
And if Pennsylvania wins that bidding war, thE site will be transformed into that multi-billion dollar cracker facility, which experts say will spawn a whole new industry in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“The economic impact could certainly be huge,” said Goetz Veser of the University of Pittsburgh.
Ten-thousand construction workers would be hired to build the cracker and 1,000 permanent workers would be needed to operate it. Shell says there could be as many as eight spin-off jobs for each one of those in new related industries.
“If things go well it could be thousands of jobs,” Veser said.
With stakes so high, all three states are playing their best hand. A bill making its way through our state legislature could turn the site into an enterprise zone with 20 years in tax abatements to add to its natural advantages.
The site has access to both the river and the railroads for the delivery of supplies and the transport of products. But not everyone is on board.
“This is going to be a big pollution source,” Myron Arnowitt said.
Bringing heavy industry back to the Ohio Valley doesn’t sit well with some environmentalists like Arnowitt of Clean Water Action who warn about the impacts on the water and the air.
“It will smell,” he said. “There will be significant chemical emissions. We’re talking about a million pounds a year of hazardous compounds.”
Shell, which is tight-lipped about where it will be putting the cracker, says only that it will be operated responsibly.
“We will do everything we can to minimize our footprint on air and water quality,” said Bill Langin of Shell.
But Morrisette doesn’t share the environmentalist’s concerns.
“It would be wonderful. It’s hope. That’s what it is. It would be really great.”