County To Pursue Increased Air Quality Monitoring, Federal Compliance In 2015

Jan 7, 2015

Michael Bett is a Ben Avon Borough Councilman, and he wants to see the Shenango coke plant on Neville Island shut down, for good.

Bett, who is a co-founder of Allegheny Clean Air Now, made his case for shuttering the plant to the Allegheny County Board of Health meeting Wednesday, ahead of a presentation from the county’s air program manager about plans to improve air quality in 2015.

“It brings down our property values. It’s affecting our health,” Bett said after the meeting. “Why can’t we sit outside? Why should we be forced to go inside on a sunny day? Why can’t we keep our windows open? This isn’t right. The plant doesn’t have the right to affect so many people.”

But air program manager Jayme Graham said it’s not that simple. Though the permit Shenango receives from the county specifies that odors from the plant must not cross into neighboring areas, strictly enforcing that regulation simply isn’t realistic.

“Coke making does occasionally put out odors,” Graham said. “Right now, Shenango is putting it out more frequently than they ought to and we’re working with them on that. But there is going to be an occasional odor from that plant, just because that’s the nature of (a) coke plant.”

Graham said, rather than focusing on odors, the health department wants to gather additional data about specific chemical toxins being emitted by the coke ovens on Neville Island and U.S. Steel’s coke plant in Clairton.

“We are doing special monitoring projects in those two communities with volunteers … to put samplers in their back yards to take some long term sampling, to see what kind of chemicals they are measuring and try to narrow down what communities the higher pollutants are in,” Graham said.

Graham said any pollution controls that need to be installed at either plant would cost several million dollars, so the county wants to help the companies identify which units are spewing unsafe levels of toxins into the air, and which aren’t.

That approach only further irks Bett, who said he’s frustrated that the county is putting additional resources into monitoring rather than enforcement.

“It’s not the county’s job to fix the problem for Clairton (coke works), it’s the county’s job to police Clairton and fine them when they are not in compliance,” Bett said. “This is exactly the wrong attitude that the county has about air quality.”

In addition to increased monitoring near coke plants, the county will also try to improve overall air quality to come into compliance with federal standards.

Graham said it just takes one air quality monitoring station showing elevated levels of particulate matter to put the whole county out of compliance. From 2012 to 2014, the monitoring station in Liberty Borough, just down the Monongahela River from Clairton coke works, showed an average of 12.4 micrograms/cubic meter of particulate matter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for compliance is 12 micrograms/cubic meter.

Graham said the county’s eight other monitors all show particulate matter levels below that threshold, and she expects to come fully into compliance no later than the end of 2016.

Another hotspot for air pollution is downtown Pittsburgh, and Graham said in 2015 the health department will wrap up a study of diesel pollution to determine how to best allocate funds for diesel clean-up.

The county will also continue monitoring natural gas drilling activity near the airport and underneath Deer Lakes Park, and will expand its public awareness campaign about the dangers of wood smoke.