Clean Air Council

Pittsburgh Air Pollution

There are a lot of reasons to love Pittsburgh in the center of Allegheny County, but their air pollution is not one of them. Pittsburgh is one of the most up and coming cities in the country but it is also consistently ranked in the top counties for air pollution by the American Lung Association in their State of the Air reports.

In the 2016 State of the Air report, the region landed as the 8th worst in the country for year-round measures on fine particle pollution (or soot), and the 14th worst for short-term particle pollution (the number of days with unhealthy particle levels when air quality is especially dangerous). Pittsburgh also ranked 26th worst in the nation for smog from ground level ozone. Asthma rates for the Pittsburgh region, especially children, exceed the national average and air pollution plays a big role in that.

Pittsburgh has made improvements from the industrial days of the past, but there is still a long way to go before the air is truly clean and safe for all Pittsburghers.

There’s no one single cause to Pittsburgh’s poor air quality. Rather, the region’s legacy as an industrial center has resulted in numerous major sources of air pollution. Here are some big polluters in Allegheny County that Clean Air Council and other local groups are particularly concerned with:

The Mon Valley Works

The Mon Valley Works consists of three facilities: Clairton Coke Works, Edgar Thomson Steel Works, and the Irvin Plant. Together these three facilities produce steel along with much of the pollution that dirties Allegheny County’s air. Clairton is the biggest polluter in the region, and the surrounding community has suffered the consequences.

The 2005 national Air Toxics Assessment report listed Clairton and nearby Glassport as having the 3rd and 4th highest rates of cancer risk from air pollutants in the nation, respectively. While there were improvements in the most recent 2011 report, Allegheny County is still in the top 2% of risk nationally, with much of the area above the threshold the federal government considers acceptable (100 in a million).

While there have been improvements over the past twenty years, more is needed. The economic downturn led to a reduction of activity which lowered some emissions, but this is obviously not a long-term solution. Even with these changes, nearby residents still report having to regularly clean soot that accumulates on their window sills.

With the recent closure of the Shenango Coke facility, the Allegheny County Health Department has shifted its focus to the Mon Valley Works. Increased scrutiny (including continuous video monitoring of emissions) must be the department’s first step towards better regulations and enforcement mechanisms.

McConway and Torley

Right in the heart of Lawrenceville, a busy and thriving Pittsburgh neighborhood, there is a major pollution source. McConway and Torley is a steel foundry that is currently operating without appropriate emissions limits. This allows excesses of benzene and other carcinogenic pollutants to escape the plant and enter the surrounding community.

How did such a major source of pollution end up in one of Pittsburgh’s most densely populated neighborhoods? The steel foundry is over 150 years old, and at the time its original siting made sense. But with the city’s growth over the past century and a half, Lawrenceville has shed much of its industrial legacy.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the foundry has a grandfather-exemption to many pollution regulations. If a facility was going to begin emitting as much pollution as McConway and Torley the Allegheny County Health Department would be able to enforce more protective regulations. But as it stands now, weaker regulations are the only option.

The Allegheny County Health Department began fence-line monitoring of the facility in 2011 and has recorded numerous instances of emissions violating the more protective standards, but has limited options. In 2015, the department proposed a permit to force the facility to cut production (and with it, emissions) by 77 percent. The threat appears to have mobilized McConway and Torley, which succeeded in cutting emissions without reducing production.

The health department is currently reworking the foundry’s permit, and the public is awaiting the results. The Council will continue to monitor the situation and advocate for clean air and healthy communities whenever possible.

Shenango Coke Works

Shenango Coke Works was one of the biggest and most visible polluters in the Pittsburgh region. It produced coke, a highly-refined and processed form of coal and one of the three main materials needed to manufacture steel. The EPA describes coke emissions as among the most toxic of all air pollutants and classifies it as a carcinogen. Not only were Shenango’s emissions already some of the worst, but the facility regularly violated the regulations that were in place. Most shockingly, over a 432 day period from the summer of 2012 to the fall of 2013 the facility violated air pollution laws on 330 days.

The Council worked with community group Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) to elevate awareness among local and federal authorities of the threat Shenango posed to public health. After meeting with ACCAN and community members, the EPA made Shenango a priority, often deploying staff to Pittsburgh to check up on the situation and ensure that all violations were being addressed properly. EPA’s scrutiny of the plant and their involvement with the local community was instrumental in keeping pressure on the plant.

In January 2016 it finally paid off. After years of pressure from the public, the EPA, the Allegheny County Health Department, and watchdog groups like the Clean Air Council, Shenango finally ceased operations. Officially, “global overcapacity in the steel industry” was cited as the cause of the closure.

The future of the site is still uncertain. While the Council is happy to see the pollution from Shenango’s coke production halted, we are also working with groups like ACCAN to ensure the site does not turn into another major source of pollution. The community has proposed a clean energy solar farm as a non-polluting alternative for DTE Energy that owns the site.

Contact David Smith, our Southwest Pennsylvania Outreach Coordinator, to learn more or to get involved with our work on any of these facilities. His email is dsmith@cleanair.org.

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