Martin Lawrence was running late to a football practice at the end of May and forgot his inhaler. Lawrence, a sophomore at Clairton High School, has asthma. And it was nearly 90 degrees. At one point, his chest started getting tight, and he started having a hard time breathing.
He asked his coach for a break and started taking slow, deep breaths.
LISTEN to the story
Lawrence is one of many children in the Clairton area who have asthma, including three of the six children in his home. According to one recent study, Clairton elementary school students were diagnosed with asthma at nearly twice the rate of the state average. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified one of the biggest contributors: air pollution.
- Even moderate air pollution in Allegheny County raises ER visits for kids with asthma, study finds
- Allegheny County Takes Aim at Air Pollution During Inversions
- Health department signs off on plans to avoid the worst air pollution days in the Mon Valley
In Clairton, the biggest polluter by far is the Clairton Coke Works, which in recent years has been routinely fined millions of dollars per year for exceeding federal pollution standards.
A new rule from the Allegheny County Health Department could help Lawrence and others with their asthma by requiring heavy polluters in the area to cut emissions on the worst days.
In the meantime, Lawrence has found a way to cope.
“If I was younger, it probably would have escalated to an asthma attack because I would have just let it get to my head and start panicking,” he said. “But I know how to calm down and relax and control my breathing.”
The pollution trap
Jaimee Askew, another Clairton resident, sometimes goes to the hospital for migraines that she attributes to the air quality. It’s the worst in the early morning, she said.
That’s because the cooler weather overnight isn’t as conducive to dispersing the pollution, according to David Good, the director of air quality monitoring at the Allegheny County Health Department. And unlike in most other areas in the county, the coke works continue to pollute 24 hours per day, he said. “So it’s a very unique area and really requires a unique set of protections,” he said.
On some days, the pollution will begin to disperse as it warms up. But on other days, the weather doesn’t change, and what is called “an inversion” settles in, trapping the pollution in place.
Askew will often keep her 11-year-old daughter indoors when the air gets this bad. But up until recently, there weren’t any rules that required the coke works to reduce its pollution on those days.
The Allegheny County Health Department passed a new rule last year that changes this: The Mon Valley Air Pollution Episode Rule. It requires 16 industrial facilities in the Mon Valley, including the coke works, to reduce their pollution during “air quality warning” days.
The rule kicks in immediately when particulate pollution has exceeded the 24-hour pollution limits set by federal health guidelines, which typically happens during inversions. Although the rule was adopted in September, it only went into full effect for all the facilities in April.
The health department began looking into implementing the rule after a severe 6-day inversion in 2019 led to outrage. It took years of research and coordination within the health department to turn the idea for the rule into reality, Good said.
He hopes the new rule is “the start of enhanced regulations that we look into to find ways that we can go beyond what we’re already doing to [improve] air quality, to mitigate the worst air quality episodes that we experience.”
Is the rule working?
The rule went into effect several times this year, but six of the facilities, including the coke works, didn’t yet have an approved plan in place to reduce their pollution the first couple of times.
The health department sent U.S. Steel’s initial plan back for changes after finding a calculation error that meant emissions would only be reduced by 3%. In April, the health department approved a revised plan that requires the coke works to reduce its particulate pollution by between 11% and 24% on days when the rule is activated.
The health department believes these reductions will make it easier to breathe in the Mon Valley. “Together, with emissions reductions from the other sources in the area, it could be assumed that the reduction amount from the Coke Works might be equal to, or greater than, what the Mon Valley experiences,” Dean DeLuca, the air quality program manager at the health department, wrote in an email.
But because there are many variables in the weather, Good said it would be hard to tell if the rule is having the intended effect until there are more “air quality warning” days. They have to compare how much pollution is observed to how much they predicted.
U.S. Steel declined to make someone available for an interview. But a spokesperson wrote in an email that the company supports the new rule. But they think it should also apply to other regions when the weather is bad, not just to the Mon Valley.
A red dot on Clairton
Myron Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, thinks one of the best parts of the new rule is that it narrowly targets the Mon Valley. He pointed to a map of the air pollution in several states on April 24. That was the first time U.S. Steel had an approved plan to respond on an “air quality warning” day. There were hundreds of air quality readings on the map but only one red dot — Clairton — indicating unhealthy air.
“It’s not that weather doesn’t have a role. But you can see the other parts of our region – Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia – they all had similar weather. They all had similar inversions, but they don’t have red dots on their map because their air quality is not as bad as ours,” he said.
Arnowitt likes that the pollution reductions will come on days when the air quality is worst, he said, because that’s when people suffer the worst consequences to their health. But he wishes the health department would do more to warn residents before the 24-hour-period is up, like sending alerts to schools. Right now, he said, residents have to opt-in to receive the alerts.
“That’s when people get asthma attacks. That’s when people get heart attacks,” he said. “And these are the sort of problems that you’re trying to prevent by having this rule.”
Another reason Arnowitt likes the rule is that it’s tied to federal health standards. The Biden administration is already looking to make those standards more stringent next year. That would mean the new rule would be activated many more times than it is now, he said.
Ultimately, the value of the new rule, he said, will depend on the answer to a few questions: “Are companies actually carrying out their plans? Do we think the results are what we’re shooting for? In other words, are we actually making air quality better on these dangerous days?”
George David lives a few miles outside of Clairton, in Elrama. His father and brother worked for U.S. Steel and he said pollution in the area is “part of life.” He doesn’t think the new rules will have much impact on pollution.
“The thing is, you’re only going to reduce it by a small amount. You’re already trapping it” during an inversion, he said.
Justin Webb hopes the new rule works. He said his father worked at the coke works for more than four decades and has recently had trouble with his heart. Webb thinks the pollution at the plant may have contributed to his condition. One of his dad’s coworkers died only a couple of months after retiring, he said.
While his dad worked for the Pittsburgh region’s old economic behemoth – steel – Webb works for its new one: He’s a traveling medical technician. One of his most common jobs is to administer oxygen to patients to help them breathe better.
Webb likely won’t be around to find out if the new rule helps. Webb’s daughter graduated high school this year, and he plans on moving back to upstate New York, where he went to college.
“The air is so much better up there,” he said. “You can breathe, you can breathe.”