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Citizens Can Monitor US Steel Plants For Air Pollution Online

The Breathe Project
A Breath Cam photo from the Clairton Coke Work plant.

A new initiative aims to employ citizen scientists to monitor air pollution created at U.S. Steel Corporation plants located in the Mon Valley.

Anyone can access the footage from these nine, high-resolution cameras installed near Clairton Coke Works, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock and the Irvin Plant in West Mifflin. The cameras, which snap photos every five seconds, were placed in response to reports of unpleasant odors believed to have come from these locations.

This is a joint effort between the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and the Breathe Collaborative, an air quality advocacy group. Funded by the Heinz Endowments, it’s an expansion of the existing Breathe Cam network which began monitoring several sites in 2014, including the now shuttered Shenango Coke Works plant on Neville Island.

“I think there’s a direct linkage [to Shenango’s closing,]” said Breath Project executive director Matthew Mehalik. “A visual record makes things irrefutable.”

Allegheny County already collects data from sensors stationed at the Clairton, Braddock and West Mifflin plants, but CMU senior researcher Randy Sargent said having the Breathe Cam images provide a more comprehensive record, as sensors might miss emissions.

“The other thing we can do with a camera that a sensor on a smoke stake might not be able to do is we can then observe where the plume goes,” said Sargent. "In some cases you might see that it’s going into the north or into the south, and you can see when it bunches up and gets denser and denser."

Activists also complain the county isn't proactive enough in holding air polluters in the region accountable.

“Without these images, I could tell people … I see something that doesn’t look right going on, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re a conspiracy theorist,” said Clairton resident Melanie Meade. “Now I can capture the image.”

In a statement. county health department director Karen Hacker said she welcomed the additional cameras and called air quality in the area a top prioity.

“While this data cannot be used for enforcement, it will help identify areas of concern and support enforcement efforts,” she said. “It will also be helpful in educating the public about industrial emissions.”

Hacker also said that county is stepping up its enforcement policy and has implemented additional inspections at the Clairton plant.

Training sessions for people interested in the monitoring the online footage will be held on June 21 in Braddock and on June 28 in Clairton.

U.S. Steel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.