Despite Improvement, Pittsburgh Region Losing the Race for Cleaner Air

  • Photo by Martha Rial, courtesy Pittsburgh Today.

September 16, 2014
By Jeffrey Fraser

A standing-room-only audience has packed the Avalon Municipal Building on a rain-soaked April evening to hear Allegheny County Health Department officials explain the latest consent decree to correct air quality violations at the coke works across the river. It’s a tough crowd.

Most live in the north boroughs near the Shenango, Inc. plant. They know the long history of enforcement actions against it that were followed by fixes that were followed by new violations. They’re aware of the health risks that air pollutants pose, and studies that suggest their rates of disease are high. They speak in voices that express concern and fear, frustration and anger.

No one is more emphatic than Ken Holmes. “They have a lot of problems at that plant. I’ve been here for 10 years. I used to go to meetings and I’d hear the same issues I’m hearing now,” the Bellevue resident says in a voice that does not require a microphone. “Their problems are becoming the community’s problems, and that shouldn’t be the case.


“You’re the Health Department. Why are you not shutting them down? We don’t need to know the mechanics of their operation. We already know there’s a lot of poison coming out of this plant, and people are suffering. Why haven’t they been shut down?”

History suggests that, barring a catastrophic incident, closing the coke plant won’t be given serious consideration—that the enforcement model used almost always gives plants like Shenango a chance to correct pollution-causing problems when they arise, regardless of how often that occurs.

Moreover, Holmes’s belief that the air pollution he can see and smell is a serious problem places him squarely in the minority of southwestern Pennsylvania residents, recent surveys suggest.

Long after the dense smoke of heavy industry dissipated with the thinning of the mills that crowded its river valleys, the region still struggles to meet federal health-based air quality standards for two widespread air pollutants, fine particulates and ground-level ozone.

As a result, Pittsburgh and the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania find themselves on the wrong end of air quality rankings of U.S. cities and regions. And that signals greater local health risks, tarnishes Pittsburgh’s “most livable city” image, poses a competitive disadvantage in attracting talent, business and visitors and begs the question why outcries such as those heard in Avalon that evening are the exception in a region where breathing substandard air spans three centuries.

‘It’s a dirty process’

Sometime last summer, county air quality inspectors noticed mounting problems with emissions coming from several points throughout the Shenango coke plant, which has operated for 52 years on heavily industrialized Neville Island in the Ohio River, five miles downstream of downtown Pittsburgh. The violations led the Health Department Air Quality Program to double inspections to build a case against the coke works, which has been owned by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based DTE Energy Services since 2008.

Shenango is the smaller of the two coke works in the county, operating one battery of 56 ovens, which each year produce 350,000 tons of coke, the chief fuel used in steelmaking. The coke is sent by rail to the Severstal-North America steel mill in Dearborn, Mich. The nine batteries at the U.S. Steel Clairton plant along the Monongahela River, the nation’s largest coke works, turn out 4.7 million tons of coke per year that fuel the company’s steel mills.

The basic recipe for making coke is fairly straightforward: Fill an oven with coal. Bake at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for 18 hours. Remove and douse with water to cool.

It’s also a recipe for hazardous byproducts. Baking coal produces fine particulates, known as PM2.5, a dangerous air pollutant, and air toxins known or suspected of causing cancer and other serious health effects, such as benzene, xylene and toluene. Benzene and others have market value and are captured and sold. All are regulated to protect the public from their harmful effects.

For coke plants that bake coal around the clock, harnessing those emissions has proven to be an operational and engineering challenge so steep that the two in Allegheny County have not been able to do so to the degree necessary to avoid repeatedly violating air quality regulations. Not surprisingly, they’re among the largest single-source emitters of air pollution in the county.

Even after U.S. Steel spent $500 million on a new battery of environmentally advanced coke ovens, emissions were found to be high enough to violate air quality regulations in places where the ovens are fed with coal. The problem, apparently related to a design issue with the battery completed just last year, will likely result in an order to resolve it, says Jim Thompson, Allegheny County Health Department deputy director of environmental health.

So what is the best environmental performance that can be reasonably expected from local coke plants? “It’s a dirty process,” Thompson says. “They’re in river valleys where there are frequent temperature inversions. What we can only do is have them meet the minimum requirements. I think that’s the best-case scenario, where they are in compliance."

In the latest case against Shenango, the plant was found to violate air quality regulations on more than 300 days during a 432-day period that ended last Sept. 30. Violations were detected at several points susceptible to fugitive emissions, such as the lids through which coal is fed into the ovens and where hot coke is pushed from the ovens into waiting rail cars.

The precise content and concentration of those emissions are unclear. Regulators know the type of air pollutants generally found in coke plant emissions. But violations at coke works largely involve emissions that inspectors are able to see. Estimates of concentration are based on the opacity of those visible emissions.

“People are sometimes surprised at how imprecise air pollution control emissions calculations are,” says Joe Osborne, legal director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), an environmental advocacy group that filed a citizens’ lawsuit against Shenango over the plant’s recent violations. “Almost never do you have a situation when all of the pollution comes from a single stack and there is a continuous emissions monitor that can convert it into concentration and mass and tell us exactly how much pollution the plant is generating every year.”

The Health Department uses more precise instruments to measure air quality in eight locations throughout the county. One such monitor is in Avalon, downwind of the Shenango coke works.

The average for PM2.5 concentrations measured by that monitor was above current federal limits for a two-year period ending in 2012. But the most recent year shows levels dipping below the annual limit of 12 micrograms per cubic centimeter. It’s a welcome development, one that Shenango officials feel is to some degree related to improvements made over the last six years. “We understand the PM2.5 monitor at Avalon has been trending downward since DTE has taken over the plant and we believe we’ve contributed to that,” says Michael Best, plant manager.

Environmental groups point to the hundreds of air quality violations reported just last year as evidence of lingering problems at a plant with a long, troubled past. “If they invested as much thought and energy into the environmental performance of the plant as they have in their public relations campaign, there probably wouldn’t be a problem there,” says GASP’s Osborne.

Better, but still behind

Anyone who remembers or anyone who has seen photographs of Pittsburgh at the peak of its industrial might knows the skies today are dramatically cleaner. Gone is the heavy smoke that shrouded the city and hung in the valleys. Gone are all but a handful of the steel and coke mills that had been prolific sources of air pollution, replaced by a more diverse, cleaner economy driven by education, medicine and finance. Air quality data also show recent improvement in levels of fine particulates and other pollutants that are not readily visible—improvements that are the result of technological advances, industry investment, tighter local and national regulatory efforts, advocacy and economic factors.

The Avalon monitor downwind of Shenango was not the only one in Allegheny County where levels of PM2.5 are trending downward. Concentrations were markedly lower in 2012 than in 1997 throughout the county, even within the hottest air pollution hot spot immediately downwind of the U.S. Steel Clairton coke works. There, the annual average of PM2.5 fell from about 23 micrograms per cubic centimeter to just under 15. Such improvements and the fact that Pittsburgh simply looks cleaner carry considerable weight in shaping perceptions of air quality.

Back in 2008, when he was chief executive of Allegheny County, Dan Onorato railed against an American Lung Association report that ranked the county and region as the worst place in the nation for PM2.5 pollution, based on data from local air monitors. He labeled the findings a “disservice to southwestern Pennsylvania” and questioned the methodology the nonprofit used to arrive at its conclusions and its motive for publishing them.

“Anybody who’s from here knows if you compare today with 1955 or 1965 it’s never been this clean,” he told Pittsburgh Quarterly. “We’ve taken back the riverfronts and you can actually see sunny days and blue skies as you run around the region. It’s unbelievable how far we’ve come.”

But better air is not necessarily good air when evidence linking pollution to disease, disability and premature death is considered. Health studies increasingly report stronger evidence tying lower levels of air pollutants to respiratory ailments, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses. Exposure standards once considered adequate to protect human health are regularly rendered obsolete in light of new, more ominous evidence of a pollutant’s potential to harm.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently tightened Clean Air Act standards for public exposure to PM2.5 for just that reason. The EPA did the same with ground-level ozone standards after revisiting research into the toll that the air pollutant exacts on human health.

It’s a trend that is expected to continue. The debate is no longer over air pollution’s potential to harm. The debate is over the level of risk communities are willing to tolerate. And national comparisons of air quality data suggest southwestern Pennsylvania tolerates levels of several common pollutants that are higher than what residents in most other parts of the United States are exposed to.

That pollution originates from both local sources and those outside of the region, including upwind sources in Ohio and Kentucky, where numerous coal-fired power plants are found in the Ohio River valley.

Only 89 of roughly 3,000 U.S. counties fail to meet that test. Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland are among them.Despite improved numbers, southwestern Pennsylvania still finds itself on the EPA’s short list of places where the air has not met the latest standards for PM2.5 over a period of three consecutive years—a test that it must pass to be retired from nonattainment status.

That could change soon, says Thompson. Recent trends and modeling data suggest Allegheny County and the region could earn attainment status as early as next year.

Even if they do, they will have a long way to go to catch up with most of the other regions of the country. A 2011 study by Boston-based Clean Air Task Force scientists, for example, found that half of the PM2.5 monitors in southwestern Pennsylvania fall within the worst 10 percent of the monitors in the United States. Most places reached the level of air quality southwestern Pennsylvania is still striving for years ago. The air in southwestern Pennsylvania, as in several regions throughout the densely populated Northeast, also fails to meet standards for ground-level ozone, or smog, a widespread air pollutant created to a large degree by the cars, trucks and buses Americans rely on every day.

Then there is the way air pollution is monitored. Today’s air quality monitors, while reliable as a general measure of air quality, do not account for all of the small pockets of pollution that can expose certain neighborhoods to higher levels of bad air than they record. Such hot spots are not uncommon in southwestern Pennsylvania with its hills and valleys.

And scientists continue to debate whether U.S. air quality standards are as protective of human health as they need to be. The EPA’s most recent PM2.5 standard that the region still struggles to meet, for example, allows for pollution levels 20 percent higher than the limits enforced in Canada and recommended by the World Health Organization for all nations.

“Pittsburgh is good at self-reference: How are we now compared to how we were? We’re better, that is true. And usually, that’s where the conversation ends,” says Philip Johnson, interim director of The Heinz Endowments Environment Program and director of the Breathe Project, a consortium of local stakeholders assembled to improve air quality.

“But how are we compared to everyone else with whom we are competing? Not good at all, relatively and absolutely. Our air is worse and our rate of improvement is much slower.”

A matter of negotiation

On april 8, the Allegheny County Health Department announced details of a consent decree with the Shenango coke works that resolves the 330 air quality violations that occurred over a little more than 14 months. Corrections were ordered and a $600,000 fine was imposed.

At no time was the plant ordered to shut down, nor did regulators consider taking such action, leading Holmes and other local residents to ask why when they were briefed later on the consent decree. After all, the Health Department made headlines that month when it declared a public health emergency and closed a townhouse complex in Carrick, where the landlord had allowed ankle-deep sewage to pool in the parking lot and left his tenants without a consistent source of clean water.

“We were talking about immediate health effects—typhoid fever, hepatitis, all kinds of disease that can be contracted in days,” says Thompson of the problems in Carrick, where his inspectors ordered tenants to vacate the troubled townhouse complex.

The air pollution of today isn’t seen as a public health threat of that magnitude—at least not a threat grave enough to warrant an enforcement action as extreme as ordering a plant to close, which the Health Department has the authority to do.

The cumulative effects of long-term exposure to lower levels of air pollutants don’t rise to what is considered an emergency, even though the EPA routinely counts such risks among the reasons for tightening its air quality standards.

Instead, closing an industrial pollution source would likely require a spike in emissions acute enough to pose an immediate, verifiable threat to the health of nearby residents. “We would have to have proof through the monitors that pollution concentrations were well above short-term accepted health standards,” Thompson says. “We’ve never really reached a period where you could definitively say it was a public health emergency.”

Another consideration peculiar to coke plants is that once shut down, the brick-lined walls of their ovens crumble as they cool and the ovens can’t be fired up again unless rebuilt.

Like the EPA and state regulatory agencies across the country, the Allegheny County Health Department negotiates with industrial polluters to improve their environmental performance when air quality violations are found. The legal orders that result outline measures offenders agree to do and often include fines.

This approach has, over time, resulted in improvements at some of the largest pollution sources in the region, including the Clairton and Shenango coke works. But, as the record of air quality violations makes clear, it does not prevent plants from exceeding pollution limits again.

In some cases, new violations result from old problems left unresolved. In other cases, new problems arise that allow emissions to elude control systems. With each episode, the process of negotiation, fines and corrective orders begins anew. The Shenango plant, for example, has operated under four consent orders or court decrees to resolve air pollution issues since 2000.

Southwestern Pennsylvania has a history of treading lightly when it comes to industrial pollution sources. The City of Pittsburgh’s much heralded smoke control ordinances and, in particular, the anti-pollution rules adopted by Allegheny County before 1950 were written with considerable input from the private corporations most affected by them.

In the county’s case, the dominant steel and coal industries at the time were largely given a pass. Coke ovens and open-hearth furnaces at steel mills, for example, were only required to adopt pollution controls that were “proven to be economically practical."

“There was certainly a tendency to go easy on the industries,” says Joel Tarr, the Richard S. Caliguiri University Professor of History and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “The county’s air control bureau was dominated by industry people. And they were facing the fact that the region’s economy was precarious. Coming out of the Second World War, you had run-down industrial plants and joblessness. So, they moved at a much slower pace. They didn’t want to put too much of a financial burden on industry.”

Whether the regulatory efforts in the region still fit that description remains a matter of some debate, despite clear and marked improvement in the region’s air quality over the past 60 years.

But the incentive to accommodate industry is clearly not as great. For one thing, jobs are less of a factor today than they were for much of the past century when heavy industry singlehandedly drove the region’s economy. The Shenango plant, for example, employs 165 full-time workers in a region where the number of jobs totals more than 1.16 million.

The regulatory structure is profoundly different: Monitoring air quality and industry compliance no longer relies on the self-reports of the pollution sources being watched. And none are more closely watched than coke plants, where the Health Department deploys inspectors daily to take emissions readings. Allegheny County also requires coke plants to abide by local air quality regulations specific to their operations that are among the toughest in the nation. That is something Shenango officials note when discussing the latest consent decree. And it is one reason why local coke plants will likely continue to struggle to remove themselves from the list of chronic sources of air pollution.

Jayme Graham, manager of the county Health Department Air Quality Program, admitted as much to the unhappy group of north boroughs residents who met with her in April. “Realizing that Shenango and the Clairton coke works have about 10 times as many regulations, limitations and requirements than any other plant that we have and other places have, it’s unlikely that they will ever be totally in compliance of everything.”

Violations and fixes

The recent consent decree requires both physical improvements at the Shenango plant and changes in practice. The plant, for example, was ordered to extend its pollution control “shed” to catch emissions that had been escaping when smoldering coke traveled a 20-foot exposed section of rail to the quench tower. The order also offers DTE a carrot to further reduce emissions, allowing the company to cut its fine in half if it invests in enhancements to the quench tower.

Regulators concluded, however, that many of the latest air pollution problems were due less to technological issues than to maintenance shortcomings and a lack of attention to detail.

Those issues, plant manager Best says, are being addressed in a number of ways. One is a new maintenance plan for the bag house, which collects dust and particulates when coke is pushed from the oven. Another is renewed emphasis on training and awareness of environmental issues, which includes making pre-shift meetings around environmental performance part of the daily routine of plant employees. “We’re targeting 100 percent [compliance]. We believe it’s a reachable target, but very difficult.”

Health Department officials were encouraged when violations at the coke plant recently slowed to a trickle, but they’ve seen that before. “The problems you have with coke plants you just don’t fix one time,” says Thompson. “You have to have ongoing maintenance, very tight operating procedures. There is a lot of human intervention that must occur in order to control emissions. We’re going to have to remain vigilant. Based on history, we’re certainly skeptical of their ability to maintain compliance.”

‘Not a problem at all’

The region’s signature environmental accomplishment occurred nearly 70 years ago when city and county smoke control campaigns led to shifts in policy and practices that, in large part, eliminated the thick smoke that shrouded the area for more than four hours a day on average.

Beginning in the late 1930s, the region witnessed a surge of public concern over the effects of smoke and protests over the conditions, particularly by women’s groups. A strong public-private partnership coalesced around the issue, led by Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence and the prominent banker, Richard King Mellon, who saw cleaner air as critical to the success of their urban revitalization plans and to regional competitiveness. New policies required households, businesses and industries to burn fuels cleaner than bituminous coal or use equipment that lessened the smoke. Government agencies were created to enforce them. Technological solutions emerged, the most influential being the use of natural gas in domestic and commercial heating.

Today, air quality control technology is far more advanced and the health effects of pollution are more thoroughly understood and documented. However, the nature of the region’s air pollution and the public response to it are markedly different.

In recent years, there have been several attempts to eliminate Allegheny County’s Air Quality Program—but not because it was perceived as being too lax in chasing polluters and improving the county’s air quality rankings.

When former Allegheny County chief executive Onorato considered shifting local air quality authority to the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2007, the loudest argument against the county program was that it took too long to process air quality permits for businesses that pose a pollution risk. Last year, state Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, tried to eliminate the program arguing, in part, that it’s an unnecessary cost to county taxpayers—a charge that belies the fact that county tax dollars don’t pay for it. The program’s current $7,362,369 budget is covered entirely by federal grants, fines and permit and emissions fees.

While the smoke problem 70 years ago was readily apparent to anyone who went outdoors, that’s not the case with the air pollution that lingers today. The region’s most nettlesome problems, PM2.5 and ground-level ozone, appear on their worst days as a haze that’s easily mistaken as a blanket of humidity on a summer day. That may help explain why recent surveys find the majority of southwestern Pennsylvanians are generally satisfied with the quality of the air they breathe, despite the region’s poor rankings, news media reports, health studies and other evidence that suggests it’s far from problem-free.

“We know people much more often make decisions based on their day-to-day experiences than on what any kind of scientific data tell them,” says Michael Finewood, assistant professor of geography and sustainability at Chatham University, whose research includes looking at environmental perceptions and decision making. “When presented with data that doesn’t fit with their experience, they often find ways to normalize it. They may say, ‘Those scientists have an agenda,’ or, ‘I don’t believe that. It doesn’t make sense to me.’”

Nearly 65 percent of residents across the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area describe air quality as either a “minor problem” or “not a problem at all.” Only 5.4 percent describe it as a “severe problem,” according to the Pittsburgh Regional Environment Survey conducted last year by the regional indicators project Pittsburgh Today and the University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research.

Those perspectives change very little when viewed across demographic categories, such as the income, education, race, gender and age of residents interviewed. And similar findings have been reported in earlier local surveys that ask about air quality.

If there is one group aware of the problem, it’s those with asthma. The American Allergy and Asthma Foundation ranks Pittsburgh the fourth most challenging place to live with asthma in the nation, listing air pollution and the number of ozone alert days among the chief reasons why.

“I have patients who, when we have high ozone days, they are flaring,” says Deborah Gentile, director of research, allergy, asthma and immunology for the Allegheny Health Network. “Some I won’t have come in to see me. I’ll try to treat them by phone because I know they’re going to get worse if they go outside. That’s a routine event here in the office.”

Several studies under way promise to shed more light on air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania and local health effects of pollution. Gentile and colleagues are looking at the incidence of asthma in public schools, including districts near major air pollution sources. And Carnegie Mellon University researchers are mapping hot spots, specific neighborhoods where air pollution levels are greater than what’s being reported by air monitors that cover a wider range.

Whether such studies will influence perceptions of air quality in ways others before them haven’t remains to be seen. “Clearly this is a social science challenge as much as it is a physical science and medical science challenge,” says the Heinz Endowments’ Philip Johnson. “We have medical scientists telling us we have risks that are excessive. We have the physical scientists telling us we have air pollution, how it varies over space and time and where it comes from.

“What we have to do is ask the question, what is our future? How livable and competitive do we wish to be? Do we want to be a place defined by its pollution and health risk, or by how clean it is and how livable it is?”