Allegheny County Health Department defends air quality efforts, plans stricter coke plant rules |
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Theresa Clift
The sun rises over the Monongahela Valley as smoke slowly rises from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013.

Allegheny County Health Department officials defended their air quality efforts and announced a plan to crack down on coke plants after more than a dozen activists complained to the Board of Health during a packed meeting Wednesday.

The activists began reading the more than 11,000 complaints submitted through Carnegie Mellon University’s “Smell Pittsburgh” app collected from September 2016 through June of this year.

“Please, please take these complaints seriously,” Mark Dixon, an activist and filmmaker, told the board. “We seek meaningful relief from health consequences forced upon us from polluters under your watch.”

The department is working to enact stricter rules for coke plants, said Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health.

“Every aspect of the activity and operation of these coke plants will have a more stringent standard applied,” Kelly said. “It’s a very significant change in our regulations.”

The department proposed the new rules to a subcommittee of the Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee last week, Kelly said. That committee will reconsider it in two months. If they approve it, it will move to the full advisory committee, then the Board of Health and finally County Council, he said.

“U.S. Steel plans to push back,” Kelly said.

U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works is the only coke plant currently operating in the county, said Ryan Scarpino, department spokesman.

In addition, the county has enacted a more strict civil penalty policy and as a result cited U.S. Steel a $1 million fine last month for emissions at Clairton Coke Works.

“Not only have the fines escalated … but we’ve required a remedy,” Kelly said. “Not only do they have to pay the fine, they have to … fix the problems or they have to start shutting down equipment.”

Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker said the department may increase the fine once it sees the second quarter of the company’s 2018 violations.

The U.S. Department of Justice is now participating in a November enforcement action by the department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson plant in Braddock.

“What that does mean is that this is going to be taken on as a litigation case and once they decide what the fees will be, and penalties will be, we will get half those penalties as well as the EPA,” Hacker said.

Many speakers said they were pleased with the department’s actions but they did not go far enough to crack down on polluters.

“We understand you’re trying to address the problem,” Dixon told the board. “These steps however are not health improvements in and of themselves, and science continues to show stricter and stricter restraints on air pollution are important for public safety.”

Activists read off “Smell Pittsburgh” complaints of smells like diesel, exhaust, sulfur and rotten eggs and symptoms like nasal discomfort, throat irritation, visual impairment and headaches.

Angelo Taranto mentioned the department’s plans to use more than $10 million from the Clean Air Fund and Title V Fund on a project to renovate its office space in Lawrenceville . Two organizations sued the county over that last month.

“Our community was harmed by Shenango Coke Works for decades and the fines Shenango paid for violations went into that fund,” said Taranto, co-founder of Allegheny County Clean Air Now. “Since our community was harmed…the fund should be used to further improve our air quality.” 

The plant closed in January 2016; its smokestacks were imploded in May .

The department does not comment on litigation, but staff defended the use of the funds during the May meeting.

Hacker said the department takes air quality complaints seriously, including those from “Smell Pittsburgh,” but said state laws create barriers.

“The law in Pennsylvania about nuisance odors…makes it almost impossible to hold an individual polluter accountable,” Hacker said.

Board of Health member Caroline Mitchell echoed the concern.

“I am so frustrated with the state of the law in Pennsylvania,” Mitchell said. “We on the board are committed to doing what we can do within the law. We need to talk to our legislators is what we need to do.”

In April, an American Lung Association report ranked Pittsburgh the nation’s 10th-worst region for short-term particle pollution.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Theresa at 412-380-5669, [email protected] or via Twitter @tclift.

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