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Fire burning under soon-to-be shuttered Pittsburgh Glass Works plant in East Deer | TribLIVE.com
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Fire burning under soon-to-be shuttered Pittsburgh Glass Works plant in East Deer

Mary Ann Thomas
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Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
A crack in the floor of the Pittsburgh Glass Works plant in East Deer, where an underground fire continues to burn and vent gases in the plant. Federal authorities say the gases pose no heath threat.
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Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
The interior of the warehouse at the Pittsburgh Glass Works Creighton Plant in East Deer, where an underground fire continues to burn.
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Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
A heat sensor shows a temperature of almost 150 degrees near a crack in the floor of the Pittsburgh Glass Works plant in East deer, where an underground fire continues to burn.

Two government agencies have been investigating a fire burning under the Pittsburgh Glass Works Creighton plant for at least two months. The fire has released carbon monoxide and other chemicals into the facility.

Now owned by the Mexican company Vitro, the East Deer operation opened in 1883 as Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.’s original glass plant, Works No. 1. The automotive glass factory will soon close, laying off 200 workers this year.

After a safety audit Friday by the workers union, a United Steelworkers representative said plant employees are not in immediate danger.

“I feel confident our members are protected, in the absence of a catastrophic structural failure at the plant, which the company is taking measures to prevent,” said James Watt, international staff representative for the United Steelworkers.

However, given the potential impact of the fire, the Steelworkers want to review structural engineering reports from the site, Watt added.

Scott Henry, a company spokesman, said, “Employee health and safety is paramount to PGW. Engineering consultants have been, and will continue to be, used to ensure structural integrity of the facility.”

Besides carbon monoxide, other combustion by-products — including hydrogen sulfide and flammable gas — have been detected, according to Henry.

The company has been venting the plant and continuously monitoring the air, he said.

Additionally, workers wear individual monitors that will alert them if they are exposed to half of the permissible limit for carbon monoxide, Henry said.

Some workers were evacuated or left the plant early Jan. 13 when ice jams caused flooding and the additional water likely caused high levels of carbon monoxide in the plant, according to Watt and Henry.

PGW kept a skeleton crew on site and resumed operations within 36 hours after flood waters receded and carbon monoxide levels dropped to a safe level, Henry added.

Government probe

PGW started to investigate random odors in the production area of the plant in Sept­ember, according to Henry.

The company brought in an industrial hygiene firm to sample the air and determine the source of the odor.

Plant air monitoring has determined that carbon monoxide and other fumes are “well below established federal OSHA and American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygiene limits,” Henry said.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its investigation Dec. 21.

The original complaint stemmed from an allegation of exposures resulting from a “smoldering fire underneath a floor,” according to Joanna P. Hawkins, a spokeswoman for OSHA in Philadelphia.

The complaint did not classify any one specific employee exposure, she added.

Hawkins said she couldn’t provide additional comment because the investigation is still open.

PGW called in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to the plant in November to investigate a fire beneath the floor of the building. They confirmed a slow-burning fire beneath a small portion of the plant, said Lauren Fraley, a DEP spokeswoman.

“DEP concluded that the fire did not originate from an abandoned coal mine. Beyond that, DEP cannot speak to the cause of the fire or history of the site,” she said.

Current status

PGW officials say they are studying the hot spots under the plant, which “appear to be from a coal-containing backfill material that is burning underground.”

The company is addressing “localized hot spots” on the plant’s concrete floor, according to Henry.

PGW hired a design and engineering firm to provide subsurface imaging and other studies to identify the source and to ensure the safety of the facility, according to Henry.

There has been a history of coal use at the site.

Although natural gas was used to heat operations, coal was used at one point during the glass-making process and perhaps for heating.

The former PPG plant operated a coal mine on an adjacent hill in East Deer many years ago, according to a local historian Bob Lucas, 79, of Tarentum.

“There was a rail trestle high above Freeport Road from the mine in the hill to the plant,” he said.

The trestle carried coal cars that went into the factory at least before and during the 1950s, according to Lucas.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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