Weirton seen as ideal site for ethane cracker

WHEELING — Patrick Ford believes Weirton — roughly halfway between the Royal Dutch Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pa. and the planned PTT Global Chemical project at Dilles Bottom along the Ohio River — is ideally positioned for petrochemical development.

Upon learning of China Energy’s plans to invest $83.7 billion to develop West Virginia’s shale natural gas resources, Ford said the firm should look no further than the Weirton city limits.

“We were in the running for the Shell and PTT projects, but they didn’t happen (here). One of the main problems was we didn’t have enough contiguous acreage to offer them,” said Ford, who serves as executive director of the Weirton-based Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle. “Now, we are ready.”

Construction is now ongoing for the Shell project at Monaca, while PTT officials have yet to make a final investment decision. PTT spokesman Dan Williamson said Thursday the Thailand-based firm had no new comments regarding its possible project, estimated at up to $6 billion.

According to West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher, the China Energy plan is to focus on chemical manufacturing and underground storage of natural gas liquids and derivatives. Officials estimate building an ethane cracker would generate thousands of construction jobs, as well as hundreds of permanent jobs once the plant enters operation.

Hundreds or even thousands of jobs related to the cracker could also result from each such plant, officials have said.

“We’re really excited about the potential for an ethane cracker. We are ideally positioned,” Ford said. “We have the raw material. We have the land. We have access to the river.”

Ford said there are at least four sites in Hancock and Brooke counties he believes are suitable for an ethane cracker:

* Two sites on former Weirton Steel Corp. property along the river;

* A site along W.Va. 2 near Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort; and

* The former Wheeling Corrugating site at Beech Bottom.

“We have four excellent sites. It would come down to what their particular needs may be,” Ford said of a potential developer.

Shell officials in 2012 considered the Mountaineer site before eventually choosing to go to Monaca. The Beech Bottom site now serves as an industrial park used by multiple businesses.

Buffalo, N.Y.-based Frontier Industrial now owns much of the former Weirton Steel Corp. property, some of which has not been used in many years. Frontier is the same company working at the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. in Mingo Junction, as well as the former Kammer power plant in Marshall County.

The Weirton property includes Browns Island, which is positioned in the middle of the river, just north of the city’s Half Moon area. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the island — which housed Weirton Steel’s coke plant until 1982 — has contaminants such as benzene, toluene, xylene and cyanide in the soil.

However, Frontier representative Bryce Custer said officials recently commissioned a study regarding the feasibility of connecting Browns Island to Ohio via railroad bridge because of the area’s potential.

“It certainly could be,” West Virginia University Energy Institute Director Brian Anderson said of Weirton being in the running for an ethane cracker. “It would require significant remediation work, but it has plenty of potential.”

“All the groundwork has been laid. This is a very exciting time,” Ford added. “We need to take full advantage of what we have here. We want to see a third ethane cracker in this region — and it should be in Brooke or Hancock County.”

This would not be the only site in consideration, however. In 2013, Brazilian firm Odebrecht and its Braskem subsidiary announced intentions to build an ethane cracker near Parkersburg: Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise. Recently, West Virginia Department of Commerce General Counsel Josh Jarrell said although Odebrecht is no longer participating in the project, Braskem retains an interest in the land.

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