Shenango Coke Works smokestacks imploded on Neville Island
Two brick smokestacks and one bunker of the former Shenango Coke Works plant were imploded Tuesday afternoon on Neville Island.
The plant was a frequent source of air pollution violations until its closure in January 2016.
Many of the residents in the communities across the Ohio River from the plant can remember toxic flares shooting from the plant.
Angelo Taranto, who co-founded Allegheny County Clean Air Now to pressure Neville Island’s plants to reduce emissions, stood across the river and watched as the towering smokestacks became a pile of grey dust in a matter of seconds.
“I’m glad that the coke plant is shut down and being cleaned, but the relief is tempered by the fact that there’s still a lot of polluting sources on Neville Island,” Taranto said. “We’re also concerned because we don’t know the new use.”
Neville Chemical Co., which is still in operation, is not in compliance with county air quality standards after failing a “stack test,” according to an Allegheny County Health Department web page last updated April 1. The Neville Island Terminal Co. and Ashland Chemical Co. are also still operational on Neville Island and are currently in compliance with the county standards, the web page says.
Detroit-based DTE Energy, which bought the Shenango plant in 2008, has not yet determined whether it will sell the 50-acre site or develop it for reuse, said its spokesman Brian Corbett.
The coke plant operated for more than 50 years. Its pollution caused Thaddeus Popovich to move from Ben Avon to Franklin Park.
In 2013, about a year after undergoing quintuple-bypass heart surgery, Popovich was awakened by a smell coming in his windows from the plant.
He went in to atrial fibrillation. His doctor said it was likely from the plant. He moved to Franklin Park shortly after.
“The air is cleaner there,” said Popovich, an ACCAN member.
Popovich worried Tuesday’s implosion of the smokestacks could cause a spike in particulate matter in the area.
“I have cardiovascular disease and chronic asthma, so a spike like that can put you in the emergency room,” he said.
ACCAN and Ben Avon Mayor Melanie Holcomb asked Allegheny County Health Department officials to place air monitors outside during the implosion to check particulate matter levels in real time.
Department officials said the permanent air monitor would capture any emissions and would be checked hourly. That monitor is near the corner of Orchard and North Balph avenues, about a mile from the riverfront. The department’s air quality staff were on hand for monitoring Tuesday afternoon as well, Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker said in a statement.
The department monitor showed the implosion had no impact, Scarpino said in an email after the event.
Two real-time monitors ACCAN set up along the Avalon riverfront showed the same, Popovich said.
“The point is there could have been (a spike), and we needed more sophisticated equipment than we had,” Popovich said. “We’re making a statement to the health department of ‘where were you guys?’ ”
The department was actively involved in the implosion, including asbestos and air enforcement staff making multiple site visits, Scarpino said.
“The demolition was completed without any issues,” Hacker said in a statement. “Wind direction forced the dust that was created from the implosion away from Sewickley and Ben Avon boroughs, and the dust settled within a few minutes.”
Prior to the implosion, the department worked closely with Neville Township emergency services, Scarpino said.
Holcomb said the department did not contact her or any other municipal officials for the communities on that side of the river.
“The only way I know whether to alert my residents to shelter in place is to stare at the cloud of dust and decide if it looks bad or not, and in this day and age, that’s ridiculous,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb wanted the air to be monitored in real time and was also concerned asbestos could be released, even though the health department took a stack sample that showed no asbestos was present.
It could take up to two years for DTE to finish demolition and cleanup, Corbett said.
ACCAN has gathered more than 800 signatures on a petition asking DTE to redevelop the site into a solar energy farm, as the company has done in Michigan.
Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, [email protected] or via Twitter @tclift.