Prove your humanity

A group of Pittsburgh-area journalists is shining a light on air pollution and misinformation. The series of stories, funded by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership, comes from a consortium of seven media outlets, including The Allegheny Front’s story about air pollution violations at Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County. 

Colin Williams is the director of The Incline, a daily newsletter, and worked on the development of the series that includes stories about the largest Coke plant in North America in Clairton, south of Pittsburgh, and Shell’s new petrochemical plant in Beaver County. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently talked with Williams about the series. 

Listen to the interview:

Kara Holsopple: How did the series come about? Why did you feel it was needed? 

Colin Williams: With the Shell ethylene cracker plant in Beaver County opening up late last year, I think there was just a lot of concern among residents that, in some ways, lessons had not been learned from previous heavy pollution episodes.

The focus here was trying to cut through some of the lack of clarity, some of the disinformation, some of the misinformation that might have been surrounding the Shell plant and just give a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground with the polluters and also who’s trying to do work to keep tabs on that.

Who are the watchdogs here in the area? What organizations are trying to make these changes? Who has the ability to hold some of these polluters to the standards that we’ve set in the county? 

Kara Holsopple: What is some of the misinformation you heard about the cracker? 

Colin Williams: With Shell in particular, one of the things that we heard last year was that there was not a lot of clarity among the residents about whether it was fully operational when they were going from what they call shakedown into full operation mode. Then at the beginning of the year, there were a lot of flaring incidents around Shell that had locals quite alarmed. [It] was very visible, and created a lot of light pollution, which I think some residents had not been expecting.

Shell really wasn’t posting a whole lot about what it was on their social media accounts. They weren’t being very communicative with the community. So, in this case, with Shell, it was less of misinformation and more of just a paucity of information. They just weren’t saying a lot, and I think that had some residents concerned. 

Kara Holsopple: The series kicked off with a review of what Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said earlier this year about air quality, which was that there had been an 80% reduction in what he called hazardous air pollutants in the county over the last 12 years. Brian Conway of the Pittsburgh Independent dug into that claim. What did he find? 

Colin Williams: He found that, sure, the air quality has improved, but that it was relative. U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works has been the biggest polluter in Allegheny County for some time. It was officially recognized as such this year. With what they have been allowed to do within the current county regulations, there’s still just a high concentration of VOCs in the atmosphere.

Kara Holsopple: VOCs are volatile organic compounds. Those are the pollutants that [contribute] to ozone, or smog.

Colin Williams: Yes. And benzene, which is another VOC, can be a carcinogen. That’s another proximal concern for people who live downwind of these polluters. Combined with these inversions that affect our region, a lot of this pollution is getting trapped in the river valleys and was having a noticeable impact on residents’ lives.

So, yes, air quality has improved. That’s clearly the case. I mean, you look at photos from the ’40s, and it’s evident just from the visual evidence that there’s been a positive change in Pittsburgh. Brian’s article did a really good job of contrasting what had been said by folks like Fitzgerald and what environmental watchdogs were really seeing in the region, particularly as there had been these major pollution incidents like when Clairton had a fire that took their pollution controls offline, or more recently when Shell had these big flaring episodes.

Kara Holsopple: You wrote about the practice of smoke reading as a simple but effective way for residents and activists to hold industry accountable for pollution. Can you explain what it is and how it’s been used, and maybe its limitations? 

Colin Williams: I went down with some folks with GASP to the Clairton Coke Works while they were conducting a smoke reading. 

Kara Holsopple: That’s the Group Against Smog and Pollution. It’s like an activist group in Pittsburgh. 

Colin Williams: Yeah. And the usefulness of smoke reading is that really anybody can do it. Essentially, all you need is to have good enough eyesight to be able to determine the opacity of plumes of smoke that are rising from a from a pollution source. And you have to be able to see them coming from the source as well.

If, for example, you’re at Clairton and you’re looking for clouds of yellow or blue smoke, you’re looking for those from the smokestacks in the different Coke batteries. An important distinction here is that a lot of factories can look like they’re producing a lot of smoke because they have big clouds of steam coming out of them. But the smoke itself is actually what is dangerous. The steam is just steam. 

“[T]here was this misconception that the weather always moves from west to east. And so, how is it possible that Clairton is the reason we’re smelling these smells?”

The limitations of smoke reading, though, are that you’re working within the framework of county regulations, but it’s not easy to ensure that the smoke readings are acted upon. Basically, smoke readers take these opacity readings and submit them to the county, and it’s up to the county at that point to do anything about it. In recent years some of these activists have told me that they’re having a hard time feeling like they’re getting traction with Health Department officials.

So in Beaver County, where there’s no health department, activists who have been doing smoke reading and water sampling and things like that have actually just gone directly to the state and to the federal EPA to ensure that somebody is keeping tabs on this.

Kara Holsopple: What’s the biggest misconception the public has about air quality in the region?

Colin Williams: One thing I actually heard from one of the county council members was that there was this misconception that the weather always moves from west to east. And so, how is it possible that Clairton is the reason we’re smelling these smells? Or how is it possible that Shell is the reason that people in Ambridge woke up smelling maple syrup one day?

But the weather patterns here are really just much more complex. I think understanding some of the meteorology can be helpful in understanding how some of these pollution episodes can affect people who don’t live anywhere near Clairton. The pollution itself, I think, is pretty well understood at this point. It’s just that maybe there’s a lack of transparency about when these incidents are happening.

I also hope that this [series] drives more scrutiny of some of these bigger polluters as time goes on.

But the county has taken some steps. They’ve got a hydrogen sulfide monitoring site that’s up where they’re reporting on just HS2 levels in the area. There are also other examples of air quality monitoring that are happening on a more sort of person-by-person level at these Purple air monitors.

So I think people just need a better sense of what a bad air quality day can mean for their activities. And as time goes on, I think there are more ways to see that data in real time. That’s been helpful, I think, for clearing up some of these misconceptions about when and how pollution can affect your daily life. 

Kara Holsopple: What are you hoping will come out of this reporting for readers? 

Colin Williams: I’m hoping for a couple of things. I’m hoping that people can see themselves in this work and potentially get involved. It really it takes a village, I think, in this case, too, to ensure that we’re all breathing healthy air. It’s perhaps the most shared resource that we have. 

I also hope that this drives more scrutiny of some of these bigger polluters as time goes on. Reporting on this, I think, opens the door to additional reporting. By doing some of this coverage, we’ve helped identify some gaps in local coverage. Hopefully, this just encourages other reporters and other outlets to really take a look at what’s happening up in Potter Township and what’s happening down in Clairton and what’s happening on Neville Island, and really everywhere else that there’s major pollution going on in the region. 

Colin Williams is the Director of The Incline and developed a series on pollution and misinformation in Greater Pittsburgh with a consortium of outlets, including Allegheny Front, Ambridge Connection, Mon Valley Independent, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh Independent, and the Pittsburgh Union Progress. It’s funded by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership