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(photo: Reid Frazier)

From her front porch, Collette Williams can see the lights of US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke plant in North America, between the houses across the street.

She can also pick out the different colors of smoke and steam emanating from it.

“That’s like a white smoke,” she said, standing on her porch on an overcast afternoon. “And then over there, like a dark smoke.”

The fumes that day weren’t too bad, owing to rain that had just come through.

Listen to “Asthma, Dirty Air and the Struggle to Clean up a Chronic Polluter”

But on some days, the rotten egg odor of sulfur is inescapable, a rich, earthy smell that sticks to the back of the throat. The smell may be bad, but what’s in the air may be worse, especially for her son, SaVaughn. He’s 13. And the sixth grader has persistent asthma.

He takes four medications daily — a regimen of inhalers and nebulizers and pills to calm the inflammation that can make it hard for him to catch his breath.

Collette won’t let him play football because if he catches a cold by playing in cold weather, he could have bad breathing for weeks. Instead of walking to school in the winter, he gets a bus, to avoid risking getting sick.

Collette Williams and her son SaVaughn, 13, live a few blocks from the Clairton Coke Works. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

But there’s one trigger that’s hard to avoid: some of the dirtiest air in the country.

“The pollution in here in Clairton is horrible,” she said. “When the smoke comes up, smoke rises so it comes immediately up here.”

He can’t play sports at a local ball field across the street from the plant because of the fumes. Even if they ride by the plant in her car, the smell can trigger SaVaughn, she says.

Williams says the coke works deserves at least some of the blame for her son’s breathing problems.

“He can’t be a normal kid,” she said. “He can’t run around and go play and stay over other kids’ houses because I don’t know how his asthma is going to react, or how he’s going to handle the situation when he’s not around me.”  

The latest effort to clean up the coke works

The question of what to do about Clairton’s emissions has been a matter of concern for decades in Pittsburgh.

The plant was originally built in 1901, and spans three miles of the Monongahela River. It employs more than 1,000 people. Its 708 coke ovens produce a yearly output of 4.3 million tons of coke, a key component of steelmaking. Coke from the plant is used to make steel at the nearby Edgar Thomson Works, part of US Steel’s Mon Valley Works.

And though it’s cleaner than when it employed 4,000 people in the 1970s, the plant is still one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the Mon Valley and in all of Western Pennsylvania.

“The biggest source (in the Mon Valley), the sort of 800-pound gorilla is the Clairton Coke Works,” says Albert Presto, an associate research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who studies Pittsburgh’s air quality. 

The Allegheny County Health Department, which regulates air pollution, has tried to bring the plant into compliance with air laws for years, but has yet to succeed.

In the last 12 quarters, the plant has been in violation of the Clean Air Act 12 times. It’s received 33 fines from the Allegheny County Health Department in the last five years, for a total of $4.3 million.

In June, the county fined US Steel $1 million for chronic violations at the plant, for what it said were “ever-increasing visible emissions and unexplained exceedance[s].” But instead of just a fine, the county added something new: it threatened to order US Steel to cease coke production in parts of the plant if it didn’t improve its environmental performance.

The company is appealing the order, and in a hearing for the appeal, an attorney for US Steel called the penalty ‘unreasonable,’ and said that a forced ‘hot idle’ on parts of the plant could damage its coke batteries, and could cost the company up to $400 million.

In an emailed statement, a company spokeswoman called the penalty ‘unprecedented.’

“We recognize that the Mon Valley Works must operate in compliance with the most rigorous and stringent environmental regulatory standards in the entire country,” stated spokeswoman Meghan Cox. “We remain committed to improving our process through investments in personnel, procedure and capital.”

But county officials say the order is needed to get the region’s air quality to comply with U.S. EPA standards. The county’s air quality monitor in Liberty, a mile downwind from the plant, has shown increasing levels of pollution since 2014.

In 2017, the Liberty monitor recorded the highest year-round amount of fine particles of any air monitor east of the Rockies, according to U.S. EPA data. It’s the only monitor in Allegheny County that is out of compliance with EPA air quality standards. 

County officials blame the coke plant for the bad air.

“This lack of compliance at the Clairton facility has had a direct impact on the nearby Liberty Monitor, which has begun to measure increasing levels of fine particulate matter, thus reversing a long-term trend of improvement,” said Health Department director Karen Hacker, when the order was issued in June.

Asthma plagues Clairton’s kids

Coke is made by baking coal at temperatures up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The process produces large amounts of pollution, and over the years, the coke works has implemented pollution controls, often with a nudge from regulators.

But the Clairton plant remains the county’s largest source of fine particles, and is a large source of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carcinogens like benzene.

All of these pollutants have health impacts. Fine particles, or PM 2.5, are small enough to go deep into the human lung, said Stavros Garantziotis, medical director of the clinical research unit at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in an email.

“In general, the further down pollution particles can penetrate in our lungs, the more dangerous they are,” he said.

Garantziotis says pollution causes inflammation in the lung, which can set off a cascade of responses from the immune system that ultimately leads to a constricting of the passageways, and shortness of breath.

“If you could eventually clear up air pollution, you would see less asthma attacks.”  

“One of the triggers for asthma is air pollution,” said Deborah Gentile, an allergy and asthma specialist at Duquesne University. “If you could eventually clear up air pollution, you would see less asthma attacks.”  

Gentile is part of a team from Duquesne that conducts a twice-monthly asthma clinic inside the nurse’s office at the Clairton elementary and high school. (Gentile’s work in Clairton is funded by The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.)

The team screens students, teaches them about taking inhalers, and helps parents keep medication on hand for their kids.

Clairton is one of several sites the team is studying to determine what impacts pollution has on kids with asthma. They found rates of asthma at the Clairton school double the countywide rate. Gentile thinks the pollution from the coke plant is part of the cause.

“There’s multiple triggers, but bad air is one that is affecting everyone,” she said. “It’s not like if we close this plant, all these kids’ asthma is going to totally go away. But it’s probably going to improve.”

SaVaughn Williams was one of the first kids the team saw when it started its clinic. When they first treated him, he was using his ‘rescue’ medications several times a day, going to an emergency room every few weeks. The team has worked with his mother, Collette, to keep his asthma under control.

Dr. Deb Gentile seeing SaVaughn Williams, 13, at an asthma clinic inside Clairton Education Center. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

There are lots of factors that put SaVaughn at greater risk for asthma. African American boys, for instance, have higher rates of asthma than other kids. But Gentile says the kids she’s studied have a higher chance of having asthma the closer they live to a big pollution source.

Collette Williams says her son has always had asthma, since he was a baby.

All of Collette’s four children were born prematurely, but SaVaughn, was the “premi-est”, she says, at 26 weeks. A respiratory infection when he was first born kept him in the hospital for three weeks.  Doctors weren’t sure he’d survive.

SaVaughn’s breathing seemed to get better as he got older, but about three years ago, it got worse. He developed severe infections from getting colds. There were more doctors visits. More medications.  

“I started to see a change in his breathing,” she said. “How often he got sick. What triggers his asthma. I would say the last three years have been horrible for him.”

She grew up in Clairton and moved to her current house about six years ago. She understands the coke works is a big employer, but her first priority has to be to her son.

“I would be ok if they closed the mill,” she said.

Not everyone in Clairton shares her opinion.

“A ghost town” without the plant

Richard Lattanzi is a steelworker who works at US Steel’s Irvin Works, in nearby West Mifflin. He’s also Clairton’s mayor.

Clairton once had 25,000 residents. Now, there’s just 6,000. Lattanzi says he’s trying to keep the town from sinking any further.

“Do you realize what would happen to the city of Clairton and to the school district if we closed that mill down? We would not be here today. We’d be like a ghost town,” he said.

Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

He points to the city of Duquesne, just north of Clairton, as a cautionary tale. Duquesne’s steel mill closed in the 1980s. The city’s population went into steep decline, and the school district no longer has its own high school. If the coke works closes, Lattanzi fears, Clairton’s fate will be the same as Duquesne’s.

Lattanzi, 54, says the air quality in Clairton has improved over the course of his lifetime. He remembers when pollution from the coke works left the hillside across the Monongahela River barren rock. On a drive along the river, he points to the same hillside, now overgrown with trees.

“Years ago, nothing was able to grow—nothing,” he said. “Even this right here–it’s crazy to have trees here. It was all, like stones and…nothing.”

Lattanzi’s father worked at the coke works, and he remembers the smell his father’s clothes would have when he came home from work. He says his house, which is just a few blocks from the plant, doesn’t smell like that anymore.

“We can’t shut them down. You’re shutting down the city of Clairton.”

“If US Steel has some problems down there, let’s work together to go ahead and improve them or fix them,” he said. “We can’t shut them down. You’re shutting down the city of Clairton.”

“Cautiously optimistic”

Though emissions from the coke plant have improved over the years, these improvements have been in fits and starts, and frustrating clean air activists. 

“This is the scenario that we see over and over again,” says Rachel Filippini, executive director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “The plant breaks air pollution laws, the Allegheny County Health Department issues a fine. There is some sort of consent agreement that’s drawn up…and they’re given sometimes years to undertake corrective actions. And then couple of years later, another fine is issued, another consent agreement is issued, and it just goes on and on again for decades.”

Regulators reached major settlements with US Steel in 1979, 1993, 2007, 2008, 2014, and 2016.  

After the 2016 judgement, emissions from the plant actually got worse, the county says. Overall compliance with local air laws declined from 94 percent in 2014 to just 75 percent this year. Among the biggest problems are emissions from the doors of coke ovens, which are opened every time coal is put inside to bake, and every time the finished coke is pushed out. A bad seal on a door can leak out raw coke oven gas, which is classified by the US EPA as a hazardous air pollutant. 

In January, the health department enacted a strict new enforcement policy. And in June, it issued its enforcement order with a threat that it would force the plant to put its two worst-performing coke batteries on hot idle if conditions didn’t improve.

So has the county taken a new stance on Clairton? And will it succeed in finally getting the region’s air within federal air quality standards? 

“We’ve been doing this for five decades and so we’ve been disappointed in the past,” Filippini said. “We are, I guess, cautiously optimistic.”