Can a Town Prove That Its Health Problems Are Caused by Pollution?

Clairton is a community that bears the brunt of pollution and a disproportionate share of the health issues that come with it. The small town sits in the shadow of US Steel’s massive Clairton Coke Works that hugs the banks of the Monongahela River. Clairton, along with other former industrial towns, make up the Mon Valley. The Coke plant is the largest in the country, and it has become something of a lightening rod in this community. (Photo: Roy Luck / Flickr)

US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works is in Richard Ford’s blood.

“Both my grandfathers, worked in the mill, my father worked at the mill, my wife worked at the mill, my brother worked at the mill, his wife worked in the mill, my uncle worked in the mill…” The list goes on. Ford joined the rest of his family, and worked there as a young man.

Just about every member of Richard Ford’s family has worked at Clariton Coke Works. And three members of his immediate family have died prematurely from disease. (Photo: Julie Grant)

And in this lower income community, those have been good jobs. Ford remembers 10 or 15 years ago, people from nearby wealthier communities, Mount Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, came to Clairton to talk about pollution from the mill.

“We ran them outta here. Because the mill was the best job in town,” he recalls.  “We said, you keep living like you’re living, and we’re going to stay right here. As long as there’s smoke coming from the mills, we’re eating, we’re drinking, and we’re driving good. We’re sending kids to college. We thought that was alright.”

LISTEN: “Can a Town Prove That Its Health Problems Are Caused by Pollution?”

They knew the mill was causing pollution. Making coke is dirty business. The plant brings in coal, burns it at high temperatures, and then quenches it with water. You can see the steam this creates blowing out of quench towers into the air. People here are used to the stench, and the heavy cloud of pollution that can hang over the Mon Valley. Ford can still picture hanging white sheets on the clothes line as a kid. By the time they dried, the sheets would be grey.

“Our parents would hit a broom on it, and all the stuff would drop off of it. You could literally see it. And the sheets were white.”

Air quality has improved since Ford’s childhood. US Steel spent a half-billion dollars to replace one of its old coke oven batteries, with environmentally friendlier technology, as well new quench towers, and other upgrades.

It’s an awareness now that’s just sparked in us. And we’re ready to listen now, and try to do something about it because it’s so apparent to us.

And while there are still many concerns about the plant’s pollution, Ford, who is a now member of Clairton city council, says people have long depended on the jobs, and the schools on the tax money that comes from US Steel.  But he’s been starting to wonder if the costs of the mill are still too high for Clairton.

“In my own family, my dad died of cancer of the trachea,” Ford explains. “I had a daughter that died at the age of 25 with scleroderma. My son passed away this past October with prostate cancer.”

Others in Clairton offer similar disturbing lists — family members who are sick, or died of cancers and other diseases. And Ford says they’re starting to look at the coke plant with new eyes.

“It’s an awareness now that’s just sparked in us. And we’re ready to listen now, and try to do something about it because it’s so apparent to us.”

Some people living near the plant have just filed a class action lawsuit against US Steel, claiming the pollution has lowered their property values. But can Clairton and other communities in the path of the plant’s emissions really prove that their health problems are caused by US Steel’s coke plant?

Jim Kelly, deputy director of Environmental Health at the Allegheny County Health Department, says that’s exceptionally difficult to do. Clairton Coke Works violated its air permit 6700 times between 2012 and 2015. Kelly says the Health Department reached a new consent decree with US Steel to reduce pollution last year. And yet, the Mon Valley still doesn’t meet federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter. Those pollutants can cause lung problems and other health issues.  

A new countywide survey released by the health department finds that cancer rates in Clairton are slightly higher than the county as a whole. But the plant’s emissions blow toward Braddock, a small community with its own US Steel facility. Cancer rates there are double the rest of the county.

Kelly says these communities are so small that just a few sick people can sway the statistics. And, he adds, it’s not easy to pin diseases on US Steel. There are many reasons people get cancer, especially in low income areas.

“You’ve got high smoking rates, you’ve got old housing stock, with lots of asbestos, lung cancer right there,” Kelly explains. “You have low education, you have high unemployment, high obesity rates, all of these things are correlated with those same things.”

Researchers around Pittsburgh are trying to tease out the role air pollution plays in cancers and other diseases. According to the U.S. EPA’s 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment, people of Clairton and surrounding communities have a high lifetime cancer risk from breathing toxic air pollution — for some, the risk is more than 100 cases per million people. And one new study new study finds that underprivileged children in Clairton, and other Allegheny County communities near smokestacks, are twice as likely as other children in the region to have asthma. Clairton’s kids are three times more likely to have asthma than kids nationwide.

Children in Clairton are three times more likely to have asthma than kids nationwide. (Photo: Julie Grant)

Shelly Dougherty recently moved to Jefferson Hills, right on the border of Clairton, two miles from the plant. She wasn’t happy when she noticed what she calls the smell of a dirty gold fish bowl. Dougherty agreed to work with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who were studying Clairton’s air quality. They put a monitor on her house for six weeks. She heard about the project on Clairton’s facebook page. Shelly is not her real name. She asked us not to use it because she got some nasty comments after posting on Facebook about air quality in the area.

“Something to the effect of, F-U, we need our jobs. That’s the way it is out here. People either feel like I do, or they look at people like me like, you’re trying to take our jobs. And that’s not the case at all, no one wants to take away anyone’s jobs. All we want is for US Steel to abide by regulations.”

US Steel did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But the local Steelworkers Union says they’re not concerned about the Clairton Coke Works closing down. In fact, they’re hiring. And the Allegheny County Health Department says they’re working on a plan for the Mon Valley to meet Clean Air Act requirements by October. If the region doesn’t meet those standards within a year, the federal government will take over.