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This story was originally published on December 14, 2018

The parking lot at the Settlers Ridge Wave Pool just outside of Pittsburgh is dotted with camping chairs. The people sitting in them are looking up at the sky, as if they’re waiting for a fireworks show to begin. But it’s 8:00 a.m., and this group is here for the ‘visible emissions observer certification and training program.’

We call it smoke school because it’s easier to say,” says Rogers Rooks, a field instructor for the company that runs certifications across the country as part of a program of the U.S. EPA.

LISTEN: “The Smoke Readers Who Keep Tabs on Air Pollution”

A certified smoke reader needs to be re-certified twice a year. So every 6 months, Rooks hauls an odd-looking blue trailer to the Pittsburgh region for the field test. The trailer has a giant stack in the middle that folds on a hinge. The operator programs it to send different types of smoke into the air for the students to gauge.

Participants in the visible emissions observer certification program learn how to tell the difference between steam and emissions. Photo: Andy Kubis

Rooks says the key to passing smoke school is being able to if what’s coming out of the stack is steam or something much worse.

“If you are walking down the street and you see something that looks hideous, it could just be steam,” said Rooks. “Steam is going to be close to, if not 100%, opacity — looks like a big puffy cloud. If it’s emission, you can actually watch as that plume spreads out in the atmosphere, gets diluted by the air and becomes thinner and thinner. Steam has a finite point where it goes from visible to invisible.”

Keeping an Eye on Local Smokestacks

Anyone can go to smoke school. Most attendees are air quality regulators, but some are lawyers, permit writers or industry managers. A handful are environmentalists who want to learn how to keep an eye on big polluters in their communities.

Melanie Meade is one of them. She lives in Clairton, less than 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River and home to US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest in North America.

“All of the back of the house is a view of Clairton Coke Works all my life.”

Meade’s two story brick home sits on top of a cliff with a bird’s eye view of the plant and all of it’s smokestacks.

“From my deck, from my attic window, from my son’s bedroom window, and from my green room — all of the back of the house is a view of Clairton Coke Works all my life,” Meade said.

Melanie Meade’s stained glass windows overlook the US Steel Clairton Coke Works, one of the largest sources of air pollution in Pennsylvania. Photo: Andy Kubis

The plant bakes coal at high temperatures to make more than 4 million tons of coke a year, a key component in steelmaking.

Meade says the stacks don’t blow out as much steam or smoke on a clear day as they do on a hazy or cloudy day.  

“Especially on a rainy day, it looks like the whole place is on fire down there,” she said.  

Meade is still working towards her official smoke reader certification. Looking through the giant stained glass windows in her kitchen that frame the coke works, she can put her new education to use.

When we look at this plume, when we first started seeing it –it was going straight up and white until it reached about middle of the sky there,” she said. “But now, that dissipation — it’s not just gray, it’s a dark gray to me. But if it’s steam, it shouldn’t take that long to go away. That’s still sitting at the top there. What is that sitting up there?”  

There’s a good chance what’s sitting up in the air above Meade’s house is soot, including PM2.5. The small particles can settle in your lungs and cause serious health problems including heart disease and asthma.

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I know Enough to Know This Isn’t Right

Meade is getting good at spotting Clairton’s problems.

That is empowering to know because when you talk to someone who works at the mill, they tell you it’s not pollution, it’s just steam,” she said. “But I know enough to know this isn’t right and that isn’t right. And this can be done better. That’s what gives you strength to speak up for others, speak up for yourself and to keep going.”

Meade is being assisted in her training by Sue Seppi of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, a Pittsburgh-based air quality advocacy group. Seppi looks for volunteers like Meade willing to go to smoke school and then helps them along the way.

Certified volunteer smoke readers go out once a month. If they see a violation, they call the facility directly and they also file a report with the Allegheny County Health Department.

In an emailed statement, the Allegheny County Health Department said that the reports of visual emissions done by the volunteer smoke readers are helpful to their efforts.

“They assist in identifying potential areas of concern,” according to the health department statement. “These reports also give us the opportunity to educate the public about industrial emissions. We can use the reports to initiate and inform our investigations, but it would take observations, or any other evidence obtained by ACHD, to incur an enforcement action.”

US Steel said in a statement that when reports by volunteer smoke readers are received, they are investigated internally and acted upon as necessary.

“God’s will would not be to pollute his people. God wouldn’t do that.”

Meade says she is going to keep learning about what’s in the air she breathes because there’s too much sickness in Clairton.

“We’ve had five deaths within the last two weeks,” said Meade. “People believe it’s God’s will to be done but I’m not so apt to think that in the midst of pollution. God’s will would not be to pollute his people. God wouldn’t do that.”

Meade, who hopes to be a fully certified smoke reader by spring, says her inspiration to do this work comes from her late father, who loved Clairton. 

“Why would he put a picture window to the view of that steel mill but if not as a reminder that there’s always work to do living here?”

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Top Photo: Melanie Meade’s backyard overlooks the Clairton Coke Works. Meade is training to be a certified smoke reader to keep tabs on the visible emissions from the plant Photo: Andy Kubis