By Thaddeus Popovich,
Allegheny County Clean Air Now co-founder
In January 2016, the Shenango coke plant, six miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, shut down after producing coke for 54 years. It had operated a battery of 56 ovens, which each year produced 350,000 tons of coke, the fuel used in steelmaking.
About 170 workers lost their jobs because of the closing, a sobering result of the decision by DTE Energy, a Detroit-based, diversified energy company, to shutter the plant because of the global steel industry’s “overcapacity.” But for many people who lived near the plant, the clearer skies and cleaner air of the past year have been a welcomed relief for them and their families and a testament to their determination to improve the quality of life in their community.
For decades, Shenango’s coke-making process – filling an oven with coal, baking it at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for18 hours, then removing the coke and dousing it with water to cool – created hazardous byproducts such as fine particulates and the carcinogenic air toxins benzene, xylene and toluene. Federal and Allegheny County Health Department officials issued numerous consent degrees and orders because of violations of air and water quality regulations. A 2014 county decree, for example, covered 330 days of air quality violations over a 432-day period that ended Sept. 30, 2013. Also in 2014, the advocacy nonprofit GASP – Group Against Smog and Pollution – filed a citizens lawsuit against Shenango.
Meanwhile, residents of nearby communities like Avalon, Bellevue, Ben Avon and Emsworth became more and more impatient. They were tired of air that smelled at times like rotten eggs, with a distinct whiff of partially burnt coal. They grew weary of the blanket of hazy bad air that seemed to hang over the valley more often than not. And they were frustrated that regulatory agencies seemed ineffective in controlling the problem.
That’s why a group of us in the area formed an informal grass roots association called Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN). Some of us became certified emissions evaluators to watch Shenango and report on harmful emissions. We organized meetings within the community and met with the Health Department on a regular basis. We traveled to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Region III headquarters in Philadelphia to meet with Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin and his staff to request their help. We obtained resolutions from our municipalities requesting that the Health Department strictly enforce regulations, and we presented a petition requesting the same, signed by a consortium of businesses, churches and other local organizations.
ACCAN also worked with local media and set up a social media network to increase broad public awareness of the problem. We engaged with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab – Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment – which helped us set up a 24/7 video monitor of the plant and distribute Speck air quality monitors to homes and businesses in the surrounding community to confirm the presence of fine particulates. And we created a stories project to detail the before-and-after effects of more than 20 individuals affected by the Shenango coke plant.
We have found that since Shenango shut down, the improvement in air quality has been significant. In the first quarter of 2015, the Health Department received 109 complaints from the surrounding communities versus 13 complaints during the first quarter of 2016, an 88 percent reduction. Of the 109 reports, 99 identified Shenango as the source of the problem. Monitoring cameras now show a haze-free site with no more grey, black or tan billowing emissions. All monitors are recording a reduction in pollution levels.
Anecdotal examples support the improvement. Debbie Blackburn and her family have lived in Ben Avon for more than 19 years and had made plans to move because they could no longer cope with the constant bad air. Both of her sons suffer from autism, a condition studies have shown to be associated with air pollution. They decided to stay after plans to close Shenango were announced in December 2015. Blackburn said now the air is refreshing and “the wind …feels clean against your skin, not gritty and heavy.”
Leah Andrascik, an Avalon resident, said with the plant’s closure “a huge weight has been lifted. We can leave windows open overnight without waking to nauseating odors or headaches. Our boys play outside, and I don’t have to cut their play time short because of odors in the neighborhood. We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to stay in the home and community we now can love.”
Although the Shenango plant is gone, we continue to be concerned about what DTE Energy will do next with the 50-acre site. We are lobbying hard for replacing Shenango with a solar array facility as DTE Energy is doing at several locations in Michigan and a brownfield site in eastern Pennsylvania.
We continue to be watchful of the remaining industries on Neville Island, three of which hold operating permits issued by Allegheny County Health Department based on Environmental Protection Agency regulations. We are concerned about the proposed Shell petrochemical ethane cracker plant in Beaver County and are offering our assistance in the formation of grass roots awareness and activism.
Now that Shenango has been closed for a year, we no longer are fearful of the air and water contaminants, measured in tons per year, which spewed into our air and flowed into the Ohio River. Our air and water are cleaner now. We expect that our incidences of cancer and cardiovascular, nervous and respiratory system problems will go down significantly. And we believe our communities will be healthier, more attractive places to live.
The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer, who is responsible for its content.