All this month, we’re looking into pollution in Pittsburgh communities for our series, Hazardous to Your Health. Clairton, about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh, is home to the largest coke-making facility in the country. According to the EPA, people in Clairton and surrounding towns have a high lifetime cancer risk from breathing in toxins in the air. Residents there are just beginning to learn more about the health risks of air pollution around the coke plant.

So what do you do when you worry that pollution from a local industrial plant is making people in your town sick, and you want to do something about it? It can help to talk to someone who has been down that road. The Allegheny Front connected people from two Allegheny County communities in different stages of this shared experience, and sat in on their conversation.

Cheryl Hurt owns a group day care in Clairton, PA, 15 miles south of Pittsburgh. Richard Ford grew up in Clairton, raised his children there, and is now a member of Clairton City Council. Both of their families have a long history working at U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke plant. They’ve also both become concerned that the plant is causing asthma, cancer, and other health problems in their small, low-income Mon Valley community. And they’re trying to figure out what to do about it.

For Thaddeus Popovich, this sounds familiar. He was living in the small, tree-lined borough of Ben Avon, north of Pittsburgh, and helped lead a local citizens group that formed because of pollution blowing toward them from DTE Energy’s Shenango coke plant on Neville Island. That plant was closed last year.

Thaddeus Popovich spent years fighting pollution blowing in to his neighborhood from DTE Energy’s Shenango coke plant on Neville Island. He shares what he learned with two residents of Clairton, Cheryl Hurt and Robert Ford, who are at the beginning stages of their activism. (photo: Kathy Knauer)

Richard Ford remembers back when it first dawned on him that it was hard to breathe in Clairton.

“After high school I went directly into the military, and I stayed away probably a year, year and a half. And I came home on leave, and I could not breathe. I was coughing all the time. That was the first time I ever noticed the real difference in the air quality.”

REALIZING WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Cheryl Hurt has started using an indoor air monitor to track pollution in her house, and for the kids in her day care.

“I look at that SPECK monitor all the time, we walk past it. If it’s too high, then that means my children don’t go outside to play.”

LISTEN: Sharing Stories to Fight Pollution

They both suspect that there are different pollutants in the air now. As Hurt says, “When we grew up, the black soot, it was something that we could see, that people understood pollution in terms of this black soot was all over us, all over our clothes, our windowsills, our cars.” Now when she looks out her window Hurt sees what she calls white smoke coming toward her house every night.

I look at that SPECK monitor all the time, we walk past it. If it’s too high, then that means my children don’t go outside to play.

“People here we didn’t understand this white particles, which I now understand is more deadly and harmful then the black soot that we understood, because it was something we could see.”

They say every family they know, including their own, are plagued with cancers. And even though they worry that the coke plant, and other polluters in the Mon Valley are contributing to health problems, they’re loyal to the plant.

Councilman Ford says the city needs the tax money it gets from U.S. Steel.

“Now our schools would probably, really shut down. So that’s a thing that you keep in the back of your mind all the time.”

Hurt adds, “One of the goals for the pollution here, we want to get it cleaned up, we do not want to see our plant closed. We do want to be able to breathe.

ADVICE FROM THADDEUS POPOVICH

“Our intention was not to have the place shut down either. We wanted them to do a better job, they were in constant violation of the law.”

Meet With the Key Players

Popovich says they requested regular meetings with the Allegheny County Health Department, which is in charge of regulating industrial polluters within its borders. And they agreed, “We got monthly meetings with them. How about that?”

Popovich and his cohorts protested at Shenango’s gates. They got the plant manager and his staff to join them at their monthly meetings. DTE Energy would also send a representative from their headquarters in Detroit. “So that was a breakthrough.”

He suggested that Ford and Hurt do something similar with U.S. Steel.

“So who are the faces behind the coke works? Who are the faces at the Allegheny Health Department who are supposed to help you with regulation?”

Ford says they are starting to get a community group together to meet with U.S. Steel and the health department.

Get a Seat at the Table

Popovich added, “May I suggest you also take the opportunity to go to Board of Health meetings which happen every other month?” He said he still attends each meeting, because he wants a seat at the table as the site of Shenango plant is cleaned up.

“There’s still asbestos to be dealt with. It’s undoubtedly a toxic waste site.”

He said it took time, a few years, to get the community organized. But he said it’s worth the effort.

“The air is much cleaner with it shut down. Night and day.”

But Popovich said the Clairton activists should keep expectations low. And get a few people like him, who are retired, who have time to take up the cause.