What Happened to Weirton? Part 5: Moving Forward

Jul 15, 2019

If someone had a crystal ball, they could tell you exactly what the future holds for Weirton. Sadly, there are no magic tools to make this a short story. But, with a bit of help from the gift of gab, I’ll tell you about the current trajectory of the area.

As it's already been established, Weirton Steel offered a seemingly unbreakable backbone of employment, high wages, and community identity to the city and the nearby stretch of the Ohio Valley. The mill helped Weirton in countless ways, from building hospitals and libraries to plowing the streets and hanging lights during Christmas time. Harold Miller, the mayor of Weirton, emphasized just how integral the mill was to maintaining the city.

“It was a wonderful company to work for. I mean, it's just, it was unbelievable, it was a fairytale. It was a one horse town, you know, and it just, so many businesses thrived off of Weirton Steel. We built a new hospital because of Weirton Steel,” he said.

Another part of the steel backbone was the tax base the company provided to Weirton. However, the company’s fiscal agreement with the city was much different than most businesses. Weirton Steel had an “in lieu of agreement” with the city in which, rather than being taxed on operations, they paid the city a lump sum of money at the end of the year. The mayor explained this would balance the city’s budget.

“So if the city in those days had a $12 million budget, $15 million budget, and they were short $2 million, then Weirton Steel would write a check for $2 million so they could balance their budget and continue to operate the facilities," Miller said.

After Weirton Steel’s bankruptcy, the city placed more responsibility on the citizens to support the city’s budget. This came in the form of a 2004 municipal service fee of $2 a week for anyone working within city limits. In 2016, the city council passed a one percent sales tax to stack on top of West Virginia’s six percent sales tax. Still, these measures have failed to replace the financial hole left by Weirton Steel. There are people, though, who are trying to fill this gap.

One such person is Patrick Ford, the executive director of the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle, or BDC. Rather than focusing on one county, his organization uses a regional approach to help revitalize the valley’s economy.

Patrick Ford, Executive Director of the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle
Credit Ella Jennings

In 2009, the BDC used a $200,000 grant provided by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to fund a development consultation by AECOM, a multinational engineering firm. The firm’s study identified five industries that they recommended the BDC should work to recruit to the area, which were energy, chemical, value added metals, transportation logistics, and healthcare.

Targeting these five industry clusters has so far proven fruitful for the BDC. The unemployment rate has fallen drastically in the northern panhandle. This past March, Hancock County’s unemployment rate reached a decade low of 5.3 percent, which was still trailing behind the national average of 3.8 percent. Patrick explained the Business Development Corporation’s efforts as well as other economic development organizations in the area have done a lot to bring jobs to the area.

“What we've been able to illustrate is that in our tri-county area, my counterpart in Jefferson County, Ohio, and the BDC, has added or preserved 7,500 jobs,” he said.

What Happened to Weirton - A Five Part Series

About 200 of these jobs were created when two international companies that produce equipment for the natural gas industry opened up manufacturing facilities in Weirton. They belong to a larger group of companies trying to capitalize on the natural gas boom that is redefining the landscape of the Northern Panhandle and north-central West Virginia.

Since 2005, more than 5,000 gas wells for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have been permitted in the state, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s collaboration with ProPublica. That's because the region sits on top of enough natural gas to power all of West Virginia's energy needs for decades.

One of the BDC’s current objectives is to help finalize the plan to build a petrochemical ethane cracker plant in Dilles Bottom, Ohio, about 40 miles down the river from Weirton.

Cracker plants get their name from their process. The plants take ethanol, a byproduct of natural gas extraction, and use extreme heat to crack its molecules. This creates ethylene, which is further processed into polyethylene, the feedstock for plastics and other chemicals. It’s what plastic grocery bags are made from, among thousands of other products.

This proposed plant, which would be owned and operated by a Thailand-based company called PTT Global Chemical, and the Shell Oil Company cracker plant already under construction in Monaca, Pennsylvania, represent nearly $20 billion dollars of possible investment and the creation of about 500 jobs at each site. Patrick said that this could lead to up to 20,000 spin-off jobs to service the people working at the cracker plants.

“For every petrochemical company job that we create, there's going to be anywhere from two to four service jobs that are going to be created that's going to service that one petrochemical job,” he said. “That's 20,000 permanent jobs. Those are people that are working at the factories and those are the multipliers, permanent jobs. Back office, hospitality, restaurants, teachers.”

And, these two plants are pieces of a larger plan to develop a petrochemical corridor dubbed the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub. The storage hub would entail a multi-billion-dollar investment of hundreds of miles of pipelines along the Ohio River connecting natural gas extraction wells with underground storage facilities and processing plants, like the ethane cracker plants.

A study by the American Chemistry Council predicts the hub could bring over 100,000 jobs to Appalachia. But these estimates all seem to exclude a very real phenomenon that is changing the nature of work as we know it: automation.

The Ohio Valley has already witnessed plenty of automation. For example, when the Basic Oxygen Plant was introduced at Weirton Steel in the late 60s, it allowed 200 tons of steel to be smelted in 25 minutes. This completely knocked out the need for open hearth furnaces, which took eight hours to do the same amount. With the help of computers, the BOP required less people and could get a lot more done, which plays into the larger story of manufacturing across the country: manufacturing employment has fallen significantly, yet productivity hasn’t slowed down.

Questions about automation give some policy analysts pause about doubling down on manufacturing investments in the region. Sean O’Leary is a senior policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

“We're offering huge tax incentives or doing whatever we can to bring these industries in, and they're going to come in and use resources and provide a fraction of the jobs that they did in the past,” O’Leary said. “Is that a great use of our tax dollars and our resources?”

And, just as automation has led to economic deserts throughout this area in the past, there’s a good chance it could again. With artificial intelligence and other technological advances, anything robots can do better than humans, they probably will. Jobs with routine and predictable tasks, such as those in production, food services, and transportation, will become further susceptible to having their labor done by robots. 

A recent report by the Brookings Institute predicts that nearly a third of all jobs in the Weirton-Steubenville metro area are highly-susceptible to automation, meaning that 70 percent or more of the tasks completed at these jobs can be automated with technology available today. Rob Maxim, a co-author of this report and senior research analyst in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, said that while robots won’t eliminate all of the jobs in this high-risk category.

“What you would see, the vast majority of them, were able to be eliminated and you'd probably have a few workers basically overseeing, you know, the robots or the software where the pick and choose your kind of automation technology that would be doing the tasks instead," he said.

And, Maxim explained that the multiplier effect, or the calculation used to estimate how many spinoff jobs will be created to service one high-paying, industrial job, doesn’t take automation into account.

“My impression of those analyses is, they tend to be good directional models, but I'm not aware of any kind of multiplier exercises that incorporate automation,” he said.

This means that the thousands of jobs that the Business Development Corporation and the American Chemistry Council predict to be created from the petrochemical industry could actually end up being far fewer than expected. 

Of course, automation isn’t just a local issue, but a phenomenon with no borders. Some reports predict that as robots become increasingly sophisticated, nearly a half of jobs in the U.S. alone are at risk of being automated.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that the petrochemical industry is tied to a boom and bust cycle. This brings speculation around its long-term economic impacts on the area, as O'Leary explains.

“When you have your economy based on non-renewable resource that price fluctuates strongly," he said. "If you're going to have booms and busts and ... eventually the well runs dry."

Aside from automation, another part of the debate over the future of the Ohio Valley are the environmental impacts of the petrochemical industry. Pollution in the valley used to mean economic security. If smokestacks were billowing gray clouds and soot covered your front porch, your parents probably had a good paying job. But now, with the mills and plants offering less and less jobs, some residents are questioning if the economic benefits can outweigh the environmental costs.

I met with Beverly Reed, a lifelong resident of the Ohio Valley, at her family’s bicycle shop in Bridgeport, Ohio. Bridgeport is just across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia, and a little over 10 miles north of the proposed PTTG cracker plant.

Beverly is an intern for the Sierra Club, and works with the FreshWater Accountability Project as well as the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. All of these groups have a shared goal.

“The biggest thing we would like to do is to stop the PTT Global Petrochemical Complex from coming to Belmont County, Ohio,” she said.

Beverly Reed
Credit Ella Jennings

Beverly is a registered nurse, and she said one of her primary concerns with the cracker plant is the effect it could have on the health of both humans and the environment.

Last year, the Ohio EPA granted the project an air pollution permit. It allows the proposed cracker to emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases each year. It would be like putting 365,000 cars on the road. The permit also allows for the emission of almost 400 tons of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, each year. VOCs are a group of gases that react with sunlight and nitrogen oxides to create ground-level ozone, or smog. Not all VOCs are detrimental to human health, but many are known carcinogens, such as benzene, which can leak from the valves and equipment used in cracker plants. Reed said that the Sierra Club and three other environmental groups are challenging this air permit.

“We're appealing it because it was woefully inadequate and not protective of human health,” she said.

With only nine percent of plastic recycled worldwide, Beverly is also troubled by the plant’s possible contribution to an already established plastic crisis.

“It’s toxic. We don't need more of it. It's killing the oceans, it’s killing all the marine life. It's killing us. It's found everywhere,” Reed said.

Ultimately, even though the region desperately needs high-paying jobs, she doesn’t believe that this should be the path forward for the Ohio Valley.

“People think that this is going to be our knight in shining armor. It's gonna bail us all out. We're going to be thriving and everything, but that's not going to be the case. It's not plain and simple. It's not,” she said. “It's going to be short term economic gain while the plant’s being built.

Reed said she doesn't believe the short-term economic boom is worth it.

“I mean, we'd probably see business in here, you know, but I don't care, you know, my family doesn't care," she said. "We care more about future generations and the environment.”

There are many trajectories that the Ohio Valley could follow. One anticipates billions of dollars of investment, thousands of jobs and national importance, as there is only one other petrochemical hub in the United States. A lot of money and political power are backing this route, but its disregard for automation could leave its economic revival looking far less human than anticipated. And, the environmental factors involved make some afraid it could turn the area into a cancer alley. All of which are narratives and realities the Ohio Valley is already familiar with. 

Another vision comes from the environmentalist standpoint, and sees the valley as a hub of green energy and localized farming. Yet, with a much smaller budget and a lack of political support, the puzzle of how to supply sustainable jobs for the valley is still one to be solved.

One truth that needs no speculation is that Weirton and the Ohio Valley deserve justice for its economic pain and suffering. No one will ever serve jail time for the mill shutdowns that led to a mass exodus from the area, broken families, and financially driven suicides. I’m not calling for some sort of retribution, but a question I continually asked myself throughout this series was, “why did we deserve this?” This same question is probably asked all across the American Heartland, as more and more people are left wondering how their prosperity came crashing to an end.

And yeah, I know, life isn’t fair. But there are reasons why mills close, and there are reasons why there are no safety nets for those who slip through the cracks.

What Are Your Hopes for Weirton?

Earlier this year, I went to the Festival of Nations at the Millsop Community Center in downtown Weirton. The very first festival started on May Day in 1934 during tense labor strife, as the mill’s management attempted to make peace with the workers following a strike the year before.

Traditional Indian dancers perform at the Festival of Nations
Credit Ella Jennings

For several years, the festival served as a celebration of the many ethnic groups that came to town to work in the mill, but it died out during World War II. The Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center brought it back in 2009, and ever since the gathering has brought together hundreds of Weirton citizens to celebrate their community once more.

The average age of the population in Weirton is about 46 years old, and it showed in the crowd. I only saw one other girl around my age, and she happened to be the daughter of one of the organizers. Still, the mood was lively as people enjoyed dancing from a range of groups, like Ukrainian folk dancers and traditional Indian ensembles.

Clemmie Frierson engaged in conversation at the Festival of Nations
Credit Ella Jennings

My original plan was to stay for an hour, but the conversations I had kept me going until the food vendors were packing up. From young to old, everyone had an opinion about their hopes for the area. I wanted to end this episode by leading out with the voices of the people I spoke to, the voices of those from Weirton, a mill town in West Virginia.

(The following are direct quotes from attendees of the Festival of Nations in Weirton on March 16, 2019.)

Carrie Stephenson:

I am just hoping for a better community for our area and Weirton, West Virginia.

Jack Provenzano:

I hope they could go back to the old Weirton, what it used to be.

Susan Buteri:

I would like to see all the companies come back into Weirton.

Caleb Owen:

I'm hoping that since they just took down the steel mill, they actually turn that into something that can kind of like, you know, bring some entertainment to the town.

Emalee Hbizdak:

I just hope we're going to keep going like in the right direction. More jobs and more community like activities and stuff. Get people involved.

Tonya Parker:

If they can bring something into that area that will create jobs for this area, that would be a good thing, in my opinion.

Ernest Nicholas Sr.:

We shall continue to grow up. We'll come back to life. We've got the right people and we will prosper.

Janet Barbario:

Yeah, we'd like more businesses to come to the area. So many kids can only work at Mcdonald's, you know.

Missy Mikula:

I'm hoping to see revitalization here in town now that we've lost our Weirton Steel. So, we hope to see new industries coming in and certainly new housing, we need it.

Linda Stear:

My hopes for Weirton are that it'll continue to grow and we'll see a lot of growth in jobs and housing and just the future looks pretty bright right now for the Weirton community. And we're pretty happy about it.

Makenzie Stear:

My hopes are for Weirton, well, that we expand and we try to clean up downtown.

Diana Magnone:

I would really like them to do things to bring back the millennials and the Gen Xers to have them have a reason to come back. Um, one thing that may help that is more of a build up things like green spaces.

Kalpana Gupta:

With the steel mill going down, the only way to replace it is to have new businesses come in.

Sneha Gupta

Having people realize that the people of Weirton actually have a lot to offer, too. Yeah, I think, I think it's, it's looking like a bright, bright future. 

Clemmie Frierson:

I'm upset because I like the city council. But there's no females, there's no people of color on the city council. I'm on the board of transportation as a director. I'm the only person of color and it bothers me that they're not really reaching out to the community the way they should. So like in terms of Weirton, Weirton could grow. But they need the input from a different set of people.

Gaetano Provenzano:

I like the idea of diversity in the valley as the valley continues to grow.

John McCugh:

I think, speak honestly, I think a lot of people in this town need to realize progression and change is good. So, let loose of what we were in the 70s and let’s move into the future.

Dan Greathouse

I expect a lot of great things to happen to Weirton over the next five years. I see us growing.

Rachel English:

I would like to see the valley come alive again.

Colton Kolanko:

My hopes for Weirton are that, everyone can, I guess, achieve their pursuit of happiness, whatever that may be. And that... everyone has the opportunity, I guess that they deserve, because everyone deserves opportunities. Even Weirton, even the small town of Weirton.

Music featured in this episode:

"Brittle Rille" by Kevin MacLeod

"Lightless Dawn" by Kevin MacLeod

"Thoughtful" by Lee Rosevere

"Dreams Become Real" by Kevin MacLeod