PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

Introduction: An Intersectional Approach to Fighting the Petrochemical Buildout in Pennsylvania

by John Ukenye, Policy Analyst

Modern-day Pennsylvania was molded by the rapid technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution. The result of such advancements on human health, however, was devastating: these facilities required fossil fuels (which involve an environmentally destructive process to extract in the first place) which directly led to poor air quality, poisoned water, and destroyed soil in the decades to follow. Pennsylvania's residents are still feeling the effects of this today.

Science and technology have long been on a path of creating better machines which are much more environmentally friendly. However, especially in western Pennsylvania where I am now based, petrochemical companies are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the world changing around them. Petrochemical companies hold over the heads of their workers the threat of losing their livelihood if the companies are further pushed by “environmentalists.”

This is why I joined the fight. I believe in the dignity of the human being, and thus, the dignity of the worker. Every citizen deserves not only a job, but a job that respects the air they breathe, water they drink, and land they live on. I aim to look at our work through this intersectional lens, as environmental issues (specifically the petrochemical and plastics issues) are directly correlated with every person’s socioeconomic status, general health and wellbeing, and race, just to name a few.

My name is John Ukenye, and I am originally from South Florida, but am now based in Pittsburgh. Both sides of my family’s story are immigrant ones, with my father’s story in the United States beginning in Pittsburgh itself. After relocating to South Florida to continue his collegiate studies, he brought me to western Pennsylvania throughout my childhood and I fell in love with its natural beauty and the friendly people that live here. I knew early in my life that I was called to this state and to lend whatever talents I cultivated to help. The environmental realm is one that reaches all Pennsylvanians, and sits at the center of all other issues every person in the state faces.

My first direct experience in the environmental space was during my time as a law clerk with the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Reform, Subcommittee on Environment in Spring 2020, right before COVID-19 reached “pandemic” designation. One of the last issues I was working on was preparing for a series of hearings on plastic pollution and the over-extraction of water from regional aquifers. I did research on how plastic water bottle manufacturers capitalized on the corroded lead pipe situation in Flint, Michigan by selling and donating what was essentially their own local tap water back to the affected people in the region, now additionally wrapped in toxic plastic single-use packaging. This situation perfectly highlighted the intersection between the environment, the plastics industry, race, and class. 

My goal, from the moment I knew I wanted to go to law school, was to promote equity and justice no matter where I ended up. I fought my way through my undergraduate education, finished in three years with two degrees, honors, and Phi Beta Kappa and was admitted to Washington University School of Law where I graduated roughly a year ago. I graduated into a world that was facing a pandemic and a civil rights and social justice reckoning simultaneously, where race and class issues became dinner table conversations across the country and the globe. Average, everyday people began to see the intersectionality among EVERY issue, and these discussions continue on to this day. This is a perfect time as ever to view our work from a similar equity, justice, and intersectional perspective. 

Our membership is no doubt plugged in to the environmental issues plaguing our world, country, state, and Appalachian region. While important to keep our supporters engaged, we must continue to actively reach out to those less informed about our area of work. It is those individuals who stand to be harmed the most by continued inaction on the environmental front. 

These individuals include both rural western Pennsylvanians (as well as the rest of Appalachia), especially those who work in the dying fracked gas industry, and Black and brown families that live near petrochemical plants due to historic redlining and environmental racism. Both groups stand to gain from uniting against the fracked gas, petrochemical, and plastics industries. Both groups are in generally in the same socioeconomic class, and both generally face the same issues of dirty air, water, and land caused by the petrochemical industry and plastic pollution. It is this disproportionate burden of harmful environmental and human health impacts that environmental justice seeks to overcome. 

Both groups include hardworking people trying to feed their families, and do not deserve to have their ability to provide for their families threatened by petrochemical companies that are simultaneously destroying their land, water, and air.

We must explicitly recognize this intersectionality in the work we do, highlight both their struggles and triumphs from local leaders in the environmental space, and work to do our part to encourage the creation of better-paying green jobs that respect workers' rights to breath, drink, and live freely.  

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up