Prove your humanity

A few weeks after Pittsburgh residents wheezed through several days of unhealthy air quality, a group of Allegheny County residents called on local regulators and U.S. Steel to cut pollution from the company’s production plants. 

On a virtual rally, held with local environmental groups and activists, residents living near the company’s Clairton Coke Works said pollution levels during an “inversion” event in early November made it unbearable for them to go outside. 

Germaine Patterson, of Clairton, said she couldn’t exercise outside her home during the inversion. 

“I was forced to go back in because my heart started palpitating and I know that it was a result of the air quality,” Patterson said. “It’s a shame because we had beautiful days, beautiful November days.” 

The county’s nearby air quality monitor in Lincoln Borough exceeded federal air quality standards of 35 micrograms per cubic meter three days in a row, between Nov. 6-8, hitting a  high of 104 micrograms per cubic meter — three times the federal standard — the morning of Nov. 8, according to readings recorded by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. 

Dave Meckel, of Glassport, just across the river from the Clairton plant. Meckel said he’s tired of getting air quality alerts from Allegheny County on days when pollution levels rise. 

“People at the Health Department will call and say this is a ‘Code Orange’ day, be a good turtle and go into your shell and don’t come out until we tell you that you can breathe clean air again,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”

Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said in a statement in early November: “It saddens me to know that many people across Allegheny County may not have been able to enjoy time outdoors…because of the poor air quality. Elevated levels of fine particulate matter can negatively impact people’s health.” 

After String of Smoggy Days, Allegheny County Wants Polluters to Reduce Emissions During Some Weather Events

What Are Air Inversions?

The bad air resulted from an inversion that settled into the Pittsburgh area over a few days in early November. Inversions are a weather pattern where warm air traps colder air and pollutants near the earth’s surface, and are common during colder months. The Allegheny County Health Department says climate change is likely to make inversions more frequent in the future. 

U.S. Steel said it was already operating its plants at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus. A spokeswoman, Amanda Malkowski, said the plant made voluntary “adjustments” during the inversion, including further reducing production and limiting trucking operations. 

According to state data, the company’s Clairton plant is Allegheny County’s largest source of particulate pollution, which can cause heart and lung diseases, and benzene, a carcinogen. It also accounts for around 90 percent of the county’s hydrogen sulfide, a noxious gas that causes a “rotten egg” smell. The plant has been fined $5.5 million since 2015 for air quality violations, according to EPA data

New Coke Oven Rules

Air monitors near the plant have exceeded the state’s hydrogen sulfide limits 23 times so far this year, including seven days in a row in early November, according to data compiled by the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). 

Rachel Filippini, the executive director of GASP, said she was hopeful a pair of regulations working their way through county government could soon curtail these releases.  

The first is a revised coke oven regulation, which is under a 60-day public comment period, and is targeted at lowering emissions from the Clairton plant, the country’s largest producer of coke, a key component of steelmaking. 

“What we are seeing in them is some improved inspection procedures that will hopefully cause U.S. Steel to increase its environmental compliance efforts,” Filippini said, though she said her group would offer more in-depth comments on the rules in January. 

Filippini said a separate regulation would force industrial plants to cut their emissions during “episodic” events, like inversions. She said it will be “many months” before the county has any written draft of those rules for the public to view. 

“The current episodic air pollution regulations that are on the books are woefully outdated,” Filippini said. “Just like you saw earlier this month, there were seven days in a row when our hydrogen sulfide emission standard was violated…So we definitely need something in place to protect public health.”

Malkowski, of U.S. Steel, said the health department hasn’t shown the new rules are technically feasible for the company to implement, or that they would result in improvement to the environment. 

The coke oven regulations are available at www.alleghenycounty.us/regs-sips. Comments will be accepted until Jan. 21, at aq********@al*************.us or by mail to Allegheny County Health Department Attention: Paulette Poullet, 301 39th Street, Bldg. 7, Pittsburgh, PA 15201-1811.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.