The Allegheny Front Rewind: Coke Still Smokes in Clairton

Pittsburgh has gotten a gold star in the national media for cleaning up its dirty industrial past and growing into greener city. But problems with air quality persist. The Allegheny Front's covered the issue many times in its 20-year history. This week for The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple looks at how polluted air means the past is still the present for one area community.

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and#65279;OPEN: †Pittsburgh has gotten a gold star in the national media for cleaning up its dirty industrial past and growing into greener city. †But problems with air quality persist. †The Allegheny Front's covered the issue many times in its 20 year history. †This week for The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple looks at how polluted air means the past is still the present for one area community. †

AMBI Outdoors street sound

NAT SOUND Train going by

HOLSOPPLE: †There's no shortage of pollution in Clairton, south of Pittsburgh. †Freight trains stacked with fuel rumble by. †[NAT SOUND train out] Though downtown is mostly empty, exhaust still spews from trucks and cars. [AMBI sound out]. †The county contends that most of the pollution comes from upwind industry.

But U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke producer in the country, is a major contributor to the community's pollution. †You can smell it as soon as you drive into town. †The plant's long batteries, or series, of ovens turns coal into coke, a fuel used to make steel. †They also create emissions now regulated by the the Clean Air Act. †The Allegheny County Health Department is in charge of making sure minimum standards are met.

In the aftermath of a 1993 compressor breakdown at the plant, the Health Department's Roger Westman talked to The Allegheny Front about the challenges of making the coke industry cleaner.

WESTMAN: †We are dealing with a process that is dirty by many different kinds of †processesóthey leak emissions all over the batteries. †Trying to quantify that so we can say exactly what's coming out of there is difficult, and that's a process we're still working on.

HOLSOPPLE: †Toxins leak from coke oven doors even under normal operations. †Back then, the county was under pressure to get tiny escaping particles called PM10, into compliance with 1990 changes in the Clean Air Act. ††In plain English, PM10 is just soot--dirt--grime. †The problem was more than aesthetic. The particles carry toxins into lungs. †But the the industry's made improvements to reduce them over the years. In fact, the Coke Works was once selected as the model for creating the Clean Air Act standards for coke oven emissions. But Marie Kocoshis of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, or GASP, saw a disparity in 1993 between how industry and the government define clean, and what it meant to the people on the ground.

KOCOSHIS: These standards are not health-based. The facility here in Pittsburgh has relatively good pollution-control technology, that's why they were selected as the standard, but the fact is that the cancer rates, the lung cancer rates, of people who live near that facility are way too high.

HOLSOPPLE: †That wasn't news to Lee Lasich. †Her husband worked at the Coke Works and died of cancer at 53.

LASICH: People are coming down with heart conditions, lung conditions, bronchial diseases we don't have answers for.

HOLSOPPLE: The Allegheny Front recorded Lasich speaking those words in 2008, the same year US Steel announced a plan for over a billion dollars in upgrades at the Clairton plant. The next year, they snuffed them out, citing the economic crisis. †That same year, a report by EPA disclosed that Clairton residents' risk of cancer was 20 TIMES the national average because of toxic air pollution.

But a new plan based on a recent agreement between the company and the Allegheny County Health Department is now underway. It's to better control PM2.5, an even tinier, microscopic particle. †Changes made to the Clean Air Act in 1997 require that stricter rule. ††

The new plan improves emissions 70% over the old one, and US Steel says the construction phase is underway. Local environmental groups, including GASP, had concerns about an earlier version of the plan. †The revised version gets the job done by 2013--the EPA's deadline-- and includes three new quench towers-- where the coke is cooled and where most PM2.5 hangs out. But Rachel Filippini, now GASP's executive director, in an interview last month, said that questions remain:

FILlPPINI: Unfortunately it doesn't convince us that the air in all the residential neighborhoods near the plant are going to have healthier air or air that is healthy enough to achieve the standard. †

HOLSOPPLE: GASP wants air quality to be monitored in Lincoln, a community across the river.
The Allegheny County Health Department Section Head of Air Quality Planning, Jayme Graham, says it's not that easy:

GRAHAM: We review our monitoring strategy every year. There's limitations because each one of these monitors are very expensive. †I know we've looked at and are considering monitoring, but no decisions have been made.

HOLSOPPLE: She says the county has been working diligently to meet the standards. †Whether the plan will satisfy federal requirements from almost 15 years ago--or environmental groups' and residents' concerns--remains to be seen. †A surer bet is that the county and US Steel will again be playing catch up. †A local plan for meeting 2006's more stringent Clean Air Act standards is still being written. †And EPA will come out with yet another revised rule later this year.

For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.