Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood is having a moment. In recent years, the densely populated neighborhood has acquired new boutiques and restaurants. It even earned the distinction of “coolest neighborhood” in America from Lonely Planet. But there’s something besides gentrification in the air: benzene, manganese and carbon monoxide. The pollutants are emitted by  McConway & Torley (M&T), a Lawrenceville steel foundry that’s been making parts for the railroad industry since 1868.

M&T is tucked at the bottom of 48th Street, close to the Allegheny River — out of sight, but not always out of smell, from Lawrenceville residents. Over the past year, 58 odor complaints that specifically mentioned M&T were filed through the SmellPGH app. An additional 91 complaints filed from the Lawrenceville zip code mention the words “industrial” or “foundry.”

Tim Verstynen and Andrea Weinstein and their baby daughter live three blocks from M&T. When they bought their house five years ago, they didn’t know the factory was right around the corner.

“I have mixed feelings about them being so close to the neighborhood,” Verstynen said while out walking his dog. “They are able to provide a necessary source of jobs for the community, but living so close with a young child, it’s hard for me to say that I feel totally comfortable with them being there.”

Weinstein smells odors coming from the foundry frequently – “kind of “minerally, metallic – like soot.”  She said that the people who work at the plant are great neighbors to have. “We also care about this because it’s an employee health issue,” she said. “What’s good for the neighbors is also good for the employees.”

LISTEN: “As Neighborhood Changes, Residents Worry About Pollution from Legacy Industry”

About 150,000 people live within three miles of M&T, which the environmental group PennEnvironment listed as Allegheny County’s 8th most toxic air polluter in 2015.

The Allegheny County Health Department is currently reviewing an operating permit for the foundry, one that has been in the works for 19 years. The draft permit allows the company to process 92,500 thousand tons of steel a year and sets limits for the pollutants it emits such as heavy metals that are known neurotoxins, like manganese, and cancer causing pollutants, like benzene. It also requires the company to test its emissions every five years, or if there is a significant change in emission equipment.

An earlier version of the draft air quality permit from 2015 would have significantly cut the amount of steel the foundry could process, but the updated 2017 draft permit does not lower production limits.

On Monday, the agency held a public hearing at Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville to get input from the community, marking the end of the 30-day comment period.  

One of the 37 people who testified at Monday’s hearing was Phoebe Stern, who lives a few blocks away from M&T.

“I have young neighbors going through crucial development stages,” she said. “Five years to identify an issue can be too late for them if there is, in fact, a health impact.”

Thomas Crown also lives near the foundry and believes the emissions from the plant are affecting his health. He moved to the neighborhood from Seattle ten years ago.

“I didn’t have asthma when I moved to Pittsburgh,” he said. “I have asthma now.”

Crown installed an air monitor on his roof to track the pollutants himself.  “I know they are gaming the system,” he said. “Some nights the sleeping is just fine and other nights I wake up in the morning and I’m a wreck.”

Concerns about emissions from M&T are not new. As part of a 2011 settlement agreement with the Group Against Smog & Pollution (GASP), M&T agreed to make upgrades to their building and equipment to reduce emissions of particulates and heavy metals. And in 2010, ACHD installed air pollution monitors at the company’s fence line to measure heavy metals coming out of the plant.

The health department tracked fence-line monitoring for three years, and then M&T continued it on their own volition. But fence-line monitoring is not a requirement in the draft permit, something several community members and local experts urged the health department to include.

“Despite the lower emissions limits in this permit, the draft still leaves residents exposed,” said Zach Barber in testimony prepared for PennEnvironment. “As currently written, this operating permit does not require sufficient monitoring to ensure compliance.”

A comparison of annual emission and production limits between the 2017 and 2015 draft operating permits.

M&T employs 380 people locally and is owned by Trinity Industries in Texas. In a recent letter sent to all Lawrenceville households, M&T touted their environmental record and their contributions the community. They report investing more than $63 million in facility improvements over the past 10 years, of which $23 million were earmarked for environmental and emission control equipment like bag houses that capture and collect particulate matter, and scrubbers that control odors. The company says they now have total building enclosure, meaning all air exiting the building goes through one of the 6 bag houses. Health department testing confirmed that the improvements have lowered the emissions coming from the factory.

About half of the people who testified at the hearing work for M&T in some capacity, either as consultants, suppliers, or physically at the plant. Dozens of employees came straight from the foundry, arriving by school bus, and several testified. James Gandy has been a material handler there for 25 years.

“While Lawrenceville is a changing area, residents should respect that this is an industrial complex in an industrial area,” he said.

The workers who testified on behalf of M&T spoke about how important their jobs are to them and voiced concern over whether the permit would affect their employment. Scott Meadows has worked at M&T for six years as a millwright along with two sons.

“We put a lot into keeping the air clean in and around the area,” Meadows testified. “I strongly urge the ACHD to approve a new operating permit that maintains M&T’s current production levels and to understand anything less would have a devastating impact on M&T, its employees and our families.”

None of the environmental groups who testified are requesting that the health department lower production limits that might impact jobs. Many activists and residents say this isn’t about jobs.

“It’s about protecting health and figuring out a way to balance those two interests,” said resident Hannah Reiff in her hearing testimony.

Nancy Gippert lives a few blocks from McConway and Torley. She voiced support for more frequent monitoring to make sure the new equipment meant to capture emissions is working. Photo: Andy Kubis

Nancy Gippert lives close to M&T and said in her testimony that she was happy to see that toxic emissions are on a downward trend, “because Lawrenceville needs these jobs and we certainly don’t want them to ever have to leave.” But she also voiced her support for  more frequent monitoring to make sure the new equipment meant to capture emissions is working.

Based on the feedback received from residents and businesses,  Lawrenceville United, a neighborhood association, has asked the health department to require emissions testing more frequently than every 5 years, continue fence-line monitoring of toxic metals and study the potential health effects of the facility’s air pollutants on nearby residents.

Health department officials said the proposed permit is still open to change. They plan to review and respond to all comments received during the 30-day public period before finalizing the permit. They could not provide a timeline for when a final permit could be expected.