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Once shrouded in smoke, Western Pa. makes strides to clean the air, but problems remain

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:04 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At the Shenango coke works on Neville Island, steam, smoke, and particulates are released into the air, Wednesday, October 9, 2013.
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University of Pittsburgh professor Jane Clougherty
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At the Shenango coke works on Neville Island, steam, smoke, and particulates are released into the air, Wednesday, October 9, 2013.

The question seems simple: Is the air in Western Pennsylvania healthy?

The answer contains caveats: Compared to when? Where do you live? Which pollutants are you measuring? And has the government changed its guidelines?

“We've made significant progress,” said Jim Thompson, air quality director for the Allegheny County Health Department. As head of his division for six years, he works with environmental advocates, policymakers and industry's biggest polluters to bring the region into compliance with changing federal standards.

“I think there's very little question that Pittsburgh's air quality has improved the past few decades,” said Dr. Jane Clougherty, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh who is researching air quality with the Health Department.

“Now we have to ask, ‘What are the problems that still exist? Is it equal everywhere? Are there certain pollutants and sources that we should address?' ”

Stricter regulations on companies' emissions, combined with the departure of steel mills and the closings of coal-powered plants, turned air blackened by our parents much cleaner for our children.

Problems remain, especially from coke plants near Pittsburgh and other industries to the southwest, monitors and advocates say. Some worry that premature celebration of progress will divert resources from the fight in an area that the American Allergy and Asthma Foundation ranks as the fourth-most challenging place to live with asthma.

“There's no comparison to the dark days of Pittsburgh,” said Al DePaoli, chair of the Southwest Pennsylvania Air Quality Partnership. “But the hazy days are still here.”

Shifting target

As polluters such as U.S. Steel invest hundreds of millions of dollars in facilities, some say it's time to focus more on issues such as diesel from trucks and smoke from outdoor wood-burning boilers.

Others say it's too early to shift attention.

“Locally, I think the focus still needs to be on our two coke plants because they are still significant sources of a variety of pollutants,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of Garfield-based Group Against Smog & Pollution, or GASP.

GASP got a public update last week from regulators on pollution control efforts at the Shenango coke works on Neville Island. Measurements of certain pollutants in downwind Avalon show improvements since Detroit-based DTE Energy bought the plant in 2008, but emissions still often exceed rules.

“I'm worried we're working with a sinking ship,” said Ben Avon Councilman Michael Bett. He noted asthma rates in Northgate School District dropped from 36 percent to 25 percent, “but that's still too high compared to the rest of the state.”

DTE officials say they're working to reduce emissions.

Allegheny County's air quality data summary for 2012 gives the clearest picture of how far we've come.

Measurements from a dozen sites show levels of pollutants — ozone, fine particulates, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and lead — decreased during the past 12 to 15 years.

Whether those levels meet federal guidelines depends on which pollutant is measured, and where and how recently the Environmental Protection Agency updated criteria.

The region complies with criteria for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and lead. The county met sulfur dioxide rules for 10 years, but a 2010 limit on hourly emissions is too strict for the Liberty monitor near the U.S. Steel Clairton Works and other Mon Valley industries, so the county needs a plan to comply.

Aiming for zero

Although Clairton Works and Shenango bear the blame for much of what remains bad about the region's air, their owners can claim credit for much improvement.

U.S. Steel spent more than $500 million over six years to replace coke batteries at Clairton, build “quench towers” to clean emissions and capture by-products for use as fuel.

“We reached the point where we knew we had to build new (ovens) to improve environmental performance,” U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone said.

When DTE Energy bought the Shenango plant, its emissions of smoke and soot exceeded limits an average of 275 hours a month. Plant manager Chris Kiesling said the company reduced that to about 30 hours a month.

“One of the biggest things we brought here was change in technologies for patching ovens,” he said.

A Health Department inspector visits there daily. DTE last year signed two agreements with regulators to fix environmental problems dating to 2006.

“We continue to get complaints there,” said Filippini, whose group trains volunteers to monitor emissions.

Volunteers and regulators take pictures of plumes to confront plant managers, who said they struggle to find the source.

DTE has not replaced ovens. Kiesling said smaller efforts such as replacing pipes and filling cracks in oven walls add up.

“Our goal is to get to zero violations,” he said. “Seven or eight years ago, that was probably an impossibility in people's minds. But we're focused on that.”

Localized efforts

Some clean air advocates agree that smaller efforts can add up.

“Now that we're no longer thinking about larger overbearing issues of extreme pollution coming from upwind or the steel mills, we have the opportunity to think more broadly about other types of sources, and to think about it more spatially,” said Pitt's Clougherty.

This summer, she led graduate researchers who monitored air Downtown to find pockets of diesel emissions and locate sources. Students collect air samples across the region for analysis that will include comparison with weather, since weather patterns affect ozone. It forms when heat and other factors interact with chemicals.

The Health Department is paying for the research.

Monitoring air quality enables regulators to warn people when quality will drop — so-called Ozone Action Days. People can get a forecast by ZIP code based on state Department of Environmental Protection data at airnow.gov.

DePaoli of the Air Quality Partnership said advocates need to push people to learn what the numbers mean. The partnership and GASP are pushing a grant-funded program in schools that gets clubs to monitor air and raise color-coded flags to indicate quality.

“We flew orange one day, and parents were very concerned, which is good,” said Steve Pellathy, principal at the Environmental Charter School near Frick Park.

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