An clean air advocacy group is calling for the Allegheny County Health Department to make good on a promise from May, 2018 to strengthen air regulations for coke ovens that would help reduce hydrogen sulfide emissions.
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Hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, is the gas with the infamous rotten egg smell that people all over the region notice. Even at low levels, the gas can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and fatigue and contributes to asthma attacks.
In the 18 month since the Health Department’s announcement, the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) says nothing has happened. Rachel Filippini, the executive director of GASP, sits on ACHD’s Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee. She says new coke oven rules have not been a priority for the agency.
“It’s not like we haven’t been bringing this up over and over again,” Filippini said. “It’s on their radar but it keeps getting put on the back burner. People are fed up; it’s a quality of life issue.”
On Wednesday, GASP delivered a petition with more than 650 signatures to ACHD asking the agency to make good on its promise to strengthen air regulations for coke ovens.
The group also held a press conference on the steps of the City-County building in Downtown Pittsburgh where about a dozen residents spoke, including North Braddock resident Edith Abeyta who lives about a half-mile from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant. She described how hydrogen sulfide emissions impact her life.
“Watery eyes, runny nose, headaches, nausea, sleep interruption — basically, sort of general flu-like symptoms, and there is no remedy,” Abeyta said. “Going inside your house and closing your windows is not a remedy for this.”
Mark Dixon moved to the region in 2006 but grew up in Los Angeles, where he said he never encountered the foul industrial smells he does in his South Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Dixon spoke at the press conference about how he became concerned that his morning runs might be exposing him to pollution that could cause adult onset asthma. He now checks five sources, including the Smell PGH app and his own air monitors, before deciding if and when to go out for a run.
“I probably spend more time checking apps than I do actually exercising,” he said. “Many would say that’s just life in Pittsburgh. But I say our regional air quality problem is inhumane, immoral and intolerable. And if that’s life in Pittsburgh, then that must change.”
Christine Graziano, a resident of the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, also spoke at the press conference. “I will never forget the first time I experienced that smell,” Graziano said. “I had left my windows open on a hot summer night and awoke to thick, acrid air I felt like I was choking on.
Graziano said that her asthma has returned since moving to Pittsburgh and recounted a day last January when she woke up to a smell so bad she decided to leave town with her family.
“We drove 100 miles away just to spend the night in a hotel somewhere we could breathe clean forest air,” Graziano said. “We’re about to invest in an energy audit to determine where we have leaks in our home, in part to prevent stinky air from seeping in.”
US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, about 20 miles southeast of the city, is the largest emitter of hydrogen sulfide in Pennsylvania. According to Fillipini, the health department’s air monitor has shown that the plant has violated hydrogen sulfide standards 37 times this year — and five times in the last month.
According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, Clairton Coke Works self-reported emitting about 120 tons (240,317 pounds) of H2S in 2018. To put that number in perspective, self-reported emissions for the pollutant for all other sources in Pennsylvania combined totaled about 36.5 tons.
“By reducing (hydrogen sulfide) emissions, we have the co-benefit of reducing sulfur dioxide, benzene and fine particulates, pollutants known to cause cancer, asthma, heart attacks and strokes,” Filippini said.
Melanie Meade lives in Clairton on a hill overlooking the enormous U.S. Steel plant. She talked at the press conference about research showing that black children are disproportionately affected by asthma caused by air pollution.
“At a time when Pittsburgh is looked at as the worst city in the country for black people to live in, this should be a very important issue,” Meade said, “but here we sit begging the Allegheny County Health Department to do something.”
In a statement, ACHD Deputy Director of Environmental Health, Jim Kelly said that the health department is committed to revising coke oven rules and pointed to an agreement with U.S. Steel that they say will lead to improvements at the Clairton facility.
“There are specific and numerous equipment improvements to be made at the Clairton Coke Works, which are outlined in the agreement,” Kelly’s statement read. “The overall compliance plan included in this agreement is expected to have a significant impact on fugitive emissions, which are typically the source of H2S emissions. Some of these processes are already being implemented at the plant.”
U.S. Steel did not respond to a request for comment.