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Additional reporting by Kathy Knauer

Air quality advocates have been working for several years to get regulators to take action to stop a scrap metal recycler on Neville Island from sending air pollution into the community. Earlier this month, the US Environmental Protection Agency did just that. 

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On October 4, EPA sent Metalico Pittsburgh, Inc., a notice of violation for violating federal, state, and local clean air regulations. The agency’s letter to the company said, based on the agency’s calculations, Metalico has the potential to emit at least 50 tons per year of volatile organic compounds or VOCs. 

This would make the facility a major source of VOCs and in violation of county air pollution rules and the Clean Air Act for operating without a so-called “Title V” permit, and without the proper approvals when it was constructed in 2004. 

EPA based its calculations on emissions data from other, similar-sized metal recyclers with shredders, and the capacity of Metalico’s equipment that shreds flattened cars, appliances, and steel.

Metalico currently has a minor source operating permit from the Allegheny County Health Department. Being a major source of air pollution would subject Metalico to more stringent requirements, including possible pollution controls.

Metalico’s website states it can recycle 6,000 cars per month at its Neville Island plant located a few miles down the Ohio River from the city of Pittsburgh. The company operates 21 other scrap metal recycling facilities in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. The plant is operated by Chinese-owned Ye Chiu Metal Recycling.  

EPA also issued violations for visible emissions from the plant on three days in 2021, using camera images taken by Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), an advocacy group. 

Angelo Taranto of ACCAN hailed the action. “These problems have been going on long enough, so we were delighted that a regulatory agency is looking at all the documentation that we have gathered and is actually using that to identify violations,” he said.

Advocates have worried about Metalico for years

ACCAN has been keeping tabs on Metalico for several years for air quality problems. By far, the worst air pollution event was on April 14, 2021, when a major fire broke out at its facility that blanketed the surrounding community with thick, black smoke. 

Firefighters from several departments were called to the scene. They had to haul in tankers to douse the heaping pile of flaming scrap metal. 

Sonia Kowal’s house in Emsworth was one of those impacted. It sits on a bluff above the Ohio River, across from Metalico. The plant can be seen from her backyard. 

“As the wind picked up, the smoke just got really thick and just started blowing across the river,” Kowal recalled. “It was so thick that you could not see Neville Island. I couldn’t even see the river. It was that thick.”

Back in 2018, ACCAN with help from Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE lab, installed a camera and air quality monitor in Kowal’s backyard. Taranto describes the video from the night of April 14th.  

“So this is shortly after the fire started, you can see all the smoke is blowing right at Sonia’s place. Just horrible emissions,” he said.

During the fire, ACCAN’s monitor showed extremely high levels of dangerous fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 between 3,000% to 8,000% above the long-term average — the highest level ever recorded.  But the EPA-approved monitor used by the Allegheny County Health Department two miles downwind showed only a small spike of PM 2.5, and not until 9 pm, more than 5 hours after the fire began. 

The health department, which regulates air quality in Allegheny County, declined an interview. In an email, spokesperson Chris Togneri would not comment on the fire as it is an ongoing investigation. He wrote that in terms of potential exceedances of air quality standards from the fire, “the process includes inspection of the facility and discussion with Metalico personnel…Once that information is gathered, reports prepared, and guidance received from the EPA and DEP, [health department] program staff and legal determine violations and next steps.”

Metalico's May 22, 2021 fire

On May 22, 2021, another fire broke out at Metalico. This time, the wind did not blow the smoke toward Emsworth, across the river. Photo courtesy of Sonia Kowal

Metalico had another fire at its Neville Island plant on May 22 and a fire on August 24 at its Bradford, Pennsylvania facility. 

Noise and odors from the plant

Metallico has been a nuisance to Kowal and her neighbors much longer than the fires. 

Since ACCAN installed the monitor and camera in 2018, they have documented more than 300 explosions, bad smells, and noise and pollution events related to Metalico and shared those with the health department. But the agency said it can’t base enforcement actions on citizen air monitors. Since 2018, it has fined Metalico a total of $19,650 for visible emissions and “reporting upset conditions.”

This doesn’t sit well with Kowal. When she bought her two-story Cape Cod house 10 years ago, she said she didn’t sign up for living next to an industrial site.

One time I talked to someone from Neville Township, they said if I didn’t want to live in an industrial area, I shouldn’t have moved to one. And I’m like, ‘I didn’t — I’m in Emsworth.’ We’re residential, and I thought there were laws that certain odors and emissions can’t cross their property line.”

The noise from Metalico also travels across the river, so Kowal started making recordings soon after she moved in. She describes the sound from the plant as a high-speed, head-on collision “happening every 30 seconds right outside your window.”

And, she says, once or twice a month barges pull up to Metalico to load scrap metal.

They’re dropping heavy metal, two to three stories high into a metal barge,” she said. “The noise will last all day, every five minutes.”

Video provided by Sonia Kowal of noise coming from Metalico. (Turn on sound)

Kowal says Metalico operates late into the night and on the weekends. Neville Island’s industrial zoning does not limit its hours of operation.  

But for Kowal, what’s even worse is the smell. “It’s just this heavy, heavy odor of burnt plastic, like if you were to throw an old stereo into a bin and you burned it,” she said. “And then there’s a smell that I would describe as maybe turpentine. It’s kind of a sweet smell.”  

Metalico declined to comment for this story. According to reporting by PublicSource, the company says it abides by regulations and, when it has been fined, it has made changes and improvements

Its operating permit from the health department states the company is supposed to take “all reasonable efforts” to make sure cars have been stripped of components that might be hazardous  — like fuel tanks and tires — before they shred them.

Because of the odors, Kowal wonders if the company is doing all that it can. “I mean, if you think about it, it’s parts of a car,” she said. “You’ve got all the plastic, you’ve got the upholstery, everything. What are we breathing in?”

Regulatory Action

ACCAN’s Taranto wants the health department to do more. “The community has felt ignored by the local authorities because they would send complaint after complaint detailing the horrific pollution they were subjected to and they didn’t see effective action being taken,” he said.

In an email, the health department stated it must “follow federal and state laws as it relates to any instance for which an enforcement action may be appropriate. These are time-consuming actions, and the ACHD and EPA want to make sure they are the correct courses of action.” 

EPA’s involvement with Metalico started three years ago, with an inspection of the facility on August 8, 2018. The agency’s latest action was sending the Notice of Violation and Opportunity to Confer to Metalico earlier this month. The company has 30 days to respond, and can offer additional information to the agency.

Document Cloud of Notice of violation

Hazardous air emissions

Neither the health department nor EPA would comment on the violations, but EPA is taking a closer look at the scrap metal recycling industry.

This summer, EPA issued an enforcement alert for more than 250 facilities across the country that shred metal like Metalico. The agency said they may be violating the Clean Air Act. 

The alert states that the process of shredding and grinding scrap metal can vaporize materials like plastics, paints, sealants, rubber, and fluids. Facilities then can generate not only VOCs, but hazardous air pollutants like lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury, and organic pollutants.

These facilities are often located in densely populated areas -noncompliant shredders can have an impact on overburdened communities,” states the alert.

A May 2020 study examined the emissions at metal recyclers in Houston. Its author, Elaine Symanski, studies air pollution at Baylor College of Medicine. “Our study actually grew out of concerns that were expressed by residents,” she said.

The study found that not only is crushing and shredding of old cars and appliances a source of air pollution but that torch cutting of metal is of most concern.

“Torch cutting has the potential to generate smaller particles that contain metals, and these, of course, can be transported from the scrap yard into neighboring communities,” she said.

Her team used air quality monitors to measure vaporized metals, some of which are known carcinogens. 

“The metals that we detected in the air samples included iron, nickel, total chromium and manganese and lead,” she explained. 

They then conducted risk assessments for both cancer and noncancer endpoints and found the cancer risk was higher in the neighborhoods nearest the recyclers. After the findings were published, the Houston Health Department worked with the industry and environmental groups to create a public health action plan

Hope for the community

ACCAN is pleased EPA used images from its camera in the decision to issue the notice of violations for visible emissions from Metalico. 

 “We’re really kind of delighted that after looking at the documentation, they’re taking some action, and we hope that this action will bring relief to the community,” said Taranto. “We don’t know how it will all play out, but this is very encouraging.”

Taranto would have liked EPA to have done something about the emissions from the April and May fires. So even though this action by EPA shows progress, it in no way is a resolution of those two egregious episodes that harmed residents,” he said.

Overall, he’s hoping ACCAN’s camera and air monitors, as well as complaints from residents like Kowal and her neighbors, will bring more attention to what’s happening at Metalico.

As for Sonia Kowal, she’s tired of being told she should move every time she voices a complaint. 

“I shouldn’t have to move,” she said. “This is such a heavily populated area, and then to have a business like that right there, it’s crazy.”

Correction: The Allegheny County Health Department’s comment about the investigation of the April 14, 2021 fire has been updated.