McConway & Torley steel foundry under fire in trendy Lawrenceville
A steel foundry that employs hundreds in Lawrenceville is under fire from some in the neighborhood it’s called home for nearly 150 years.
Residents, neighborhood groups and environmental activists want McConway & Torley LLC to cut the pollution, truck traffic and noise coming from its 48th Street foundry and support an Allegheny County Health Department permit that could reduce its steel production by 77 percent.
Employees say the production cuts could threaten the more than 400 people who work at the foundry — one of the larger employers in the neighborhood.
McConway & Torley officials say the foundry complies with state and county air quality guidelines and that the neighborhood does not understand the impact the foundry has locally and nationally.
“In 2015, you would never allow a foundry to locate in Lawrenceville,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, a Garfield-based nonprofit fighting the foundry. “A lot of people real-ly don’t know this company exists. When people think of air pollution, they think of the big ones — the Clairton works, the Cheswick power plant, Shenango. A lot of people don’t know that this foundry is tucked back on 48th Street.”
McConway & Torley has been tucked back on 48th Street since 1868 when William McConway bought Eagle Gray Foundry. The first transcontinental railroad would be completed in the next year.
The foundry made railroad couplers then and still does, and its products account for about 60 percent of the North American market, said Scott Mautino, vice president of operations. Railroad couplers link train cars, a formerly manual task among the most deadly in the United States in the mid-1800s, Mautino said.
Brakemen once stood between cars to guide them together. Workers lost fingers or hands, were crushed or dragged under rail cars and often killed in the process.
Advances in technology, some of it pioneered by McConway & Torley, removed the brakeman and the danger. When rail cars come together today, couplers on each car grasp each other like two hands grasping by the fingertips.
The company, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Trinity Industries, has kept a low profile, said Mautino. It rarely talks to the press or grants access to the foundry.
In an effort to help the neighborhood understand McConway & Torley better, Mautino spoke to the Tribune-Review at length this week and gave a reporter a tour of the foundry.
The Health Department’s proposed operating permit would cut steel production at the foundry from 92,500 tons to 21,250 tons per year.
Changes in the estimates of how much pollution the foundry’s building captures led the department to propose lower production levels, said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental quality at the Health Department.
Lawrenceville has become one of Pittsburgh’s hottest neighborhoods. Once vacant buildings have transformed into six-figure homes and store fronts. Butler Street is home to trendy bars and restaurants, bicycle shops, retro stores and even the House of the Dead, a zombie boutique.
The percentage of people in their mid- to late 20s has more than doubled since 2000, according to census information. Their preferences for facial hair, flannel and boots seem to mimic those of the steelworkers leaving McConway & Torley at shift change.
“The neighborhood is changing. Its residents now have different expectations about the environment,” Thompson said. “Those people have the right to clean air. They have the rightful expectation that the foundry is going to be compliant with all applicable regulations.”
Harry Klodowski, an attorney for McConway & Torley, said the foundry has not violated emission limits in the past five years. The foundry voluntarily put a limit on production and started monitoring pollution in 2011 under an agreement reached withthe nonprofit.
Filippini said the foundry has complied with the agreement, but the reduction in pollution has not been as dramatic as the group hoped. Concerns about dust, benzene and manganese persist, she said.
Thompson said a final decision on the operating permit is pending. The department is waiting for the results of emissions testing by McConway & Torley.
“A lot rides on this decision — a lot of houses, boat payments and car payments — who goes to college and who doesn’t,” said Russell Lange, a melt shop supervisor at McConway & Torley who lives in Lawrenceville, at the public meeting last month at the Health Department.
Mautino said the foundry’s employment would not be sustainable if it had to cut production. He said the neighborhood does not understand the foundry and its pollution controls.
Fifteen baghouses capture dust at the foundry. The company spends millions of dollars a year on maintenance and upgrades. The odors, truck traffic and noise in Lawrenceville don’t all come from McConway & Torley, he said.
McConway & Torley, a nonunion shop, employs about 325 hourly workers and has about 100 on salary, Mautino said. Entry-level employees make $15 an hour plus benefits. The average salary is $19.50 to $20 an hour.
The foundry plans to make 70,000 to 80,000 couplers in 2015, Mautino said. The steel couplers are 32 inches long and weigh 400 to 500 pounds. They last for about 20 years and sell for $700 to $2,300.
Amtrak uses McConway & Torley couplers made at the Lawrenceville foundry. So does the Long Island Railroad and freight lines hauling coal, cars, oil and more.
Couplers start as scrap steel hauled to the foundry on trucks or trains. Two electric arc furnaces melt the scrap. The furnaces are giant welders. A 14-inch electrode produces a lightning bolt to liquefy the steel.
The electric bill tops $100,000 some months, Mautino said.
The molten steel pours into castings made of cement-like sand molded at high pressure. The steel cools. The sand shakes away.
Couplers hang from hoists as in a meat cooler. Employees hack away at excess steel — butchers armed with grinders and welders. Showers of sparks spray across the factory floor.
A worker died — crushed and impaled by a machine that makes molds — in 2011.
By the end of April this year, the foundry had gone 70 days without a workplace injury. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration awarded the foundry top honors for employee health and safety.
Air of concern
Neighbors are not asking for McConway & Torley to shut off their furnaces and close their doors. As the trendy neighborhood booms, and once-abandoned buildings transform into storefronts and six-figure homes, residents expect cleaner air, said Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United, a nonprofit neighborhood advocacy group.
Byrne’s grandmother worked at McConway & Torley years ago. Since then, residents have dealt with public safety issues, blight, abandoned houses and vacant businesses, Byrne said.
“Air quality and quality-of-life issues are not something that we have focused on in the past,” Byrne said.
Tina Gaser, 43, who has lived near the foundry for 11 years, does not want to breathe the foundry’s pollution. The smells are noxious, she said. On some mornings her eyes and throat hurt.
Darlene Wilson, 54, moved to a place a few blocks from the foundry in 1981. She said that for the most part, she doesn’t notice the foundry. But she said she can smell, taste and hear it.
“I just want to make sure that the local residents and the community at large is not at any health risk from this place,” said Mark Dowiak, 61, who moved to Lawrenceville two years ago and lives in a house a few blocks from the foundry.
Matthew Galluzzo, executive director of Lawrenceville Corp., thinks the neighborhood and the foundry can exist together. They have to, he said.
“McConway & Torley is not going away,” he said. “There needs to be adequate controls to make sure they are a good neighbor.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].