The 10 biggest industrial polluters in Allegheny County released more toxic pollution into the air in 2019 than they did in previous years, according to a report PennEnvironment released Tuesday. But while overall emissions were higher, there are signs that several sites will pollute less in the future.
“Collectively, we found that the ‘Toxic 10’ combined released more than 1 million pounds of pollution in 2019,” said PennEnvironment’s Zachary Barber. “That is an increase in pollution across the 10 facilities versus the last report,” said Barber. “That is obviously a step backwards.”
According to PennEnvironment’s analysis, ATI Flat Rolled Products in Brackenridge topped the list for the highest levels of toxic emissions in Allegheny County in 2019, the most recent year data was available.
One of the most toxic pollutants tracked in the report is chromium, which has been linked to asthma, kidney damage, cancer, and other health issues. The ATI steel mill released 911 pounds of chromium into the air in 2019 while the nine other facilities on the list released about 608 pounds of chromium combined.
“We found that these facilities — the ‘Toxic 10’ — together released a majority of the toxic industrial pollution linked to cancer and other health impacts,” said Barber.
In PennEnvironment’s last report, which looked at 2016 data, ATI ranked as the second most toxic active industrial facility in the county.
The rankings were based on an analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, which tracks industry pollution prevention plans and toxic chemical releases. PennEnvironment then used the EPA’s Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RESI) model to identify the polluters “posing the greatest threat to public health,” said Barber.
The Pittsburgh region has some of the worst air quality in the country, according to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report. But PennEnvironment also noted that some facilities made improvements, resulting in less pollution from companies that made the list in years past.
The Lawrenceville-based steel foundry McConway & Torley, for example, was cited in the last report but was not included in Tuesday’s findings. PennEnvironment’s analysis revealed that the company reduced the amount of chromium compounds emitted by the facility by 90%, and reduced nickel compound emissions by 97%.
“[W]e have taken a number of measures to reduce emissions including investing and upgrading our emission controls,” McConway & Torley spokesperson Jeff Eller wrote in an email. He said the company did not slow down production at their Lawrenceville plant, but was still able to limit emissions.
Other sites on the list are likely to emit less pollution in the future, too.
The Cheswick Generating Station, which ranked seventh in Tuesday’s findings, will close permanently in September. The company that owns the station cited an inability to compete in today’s energy market and the higher costs of complying with environmental regulations. In April, U.S. Steel announced it would shut down three coke oven units at its Clairton plant, another site on the list.
PennEnvironment’s Zachary Barber credited the Allegheny County Health Department’s insistence on stronger pollution limits “paved the way for these reductions.”
Barber said that to solve persistent pollution problems and “rein in the ‘toxic 10,’” the county, state, and federal governments will have to work together to improve air quality and invest in greener energy sources.
“Here in Pittsburgh, more than pretty much anywhere else, I think we should be aware that when economic transitions happen we shouldn’t just sit back and let them happen. If we do that, we risk suffering many of the problems and not fully reaping the rewards,” he said. “The full benefits of these transitions to clean energy and cleaner technologies for steel, those benefits will only be felt with deliberate action to make sure that we’re doing it in ways that are both quick, protective of health and the environment, and not leaving behind people who might get caught in the middle.”