John Macus fell in love with his fixer-upper on First Street in Jefferson Hills, just over the Clairton border, when he moved in about nine years ago. The backyard was perfect for his two dogs, with plenty of space for his exercise equipment, too.
“You know it’s there, it’s a huge place,” he said of the nearby Clairton Plant. “But to actually experience it — it’s a whole different story.”
Over time, Macus, 39, realized the air often smelled like asphalt. He said he could taste it when he exercised in his backyard or ran the nearby Montour Trail.
“There’s times when I’ll come out here and there’s a bluish haze,” he said, looking out at the yard on a crisp, mid-January day, less than a month after the Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Plant knocked pollution controls offline and heightened residents’ concerns about air pollution problems.
Residents like Macus say air quality issues persist.
Experts are also concerned about chronic exposure to poor air quality across the region.
“Even though the air may look all right on a certain day, certainly compared to the dark, smoggy, sick air pollution days, that doesn’t mean there’s no air pollution in it,” said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for advocacy and public policy at the American Lung Association.
A report issued by the association in April gave Allegheny County a failing grade for air quality and ranked its air among the worst in the country.
High levels of the pollutant sulfur dioxide, or SO2, were the focus of concerns following the fire. But SO2 is only one of several pollutants — including ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide — that contribute to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s measures of overall air quality.
Instances of high levels of SO2 do not always coincide with predictions for unhealthy air quality days, such as when levels of other pollutants are high.
The region’s topography and weather events like surface temperature inversions — when pollution and cold air is trapped closer to the surface by a layer of warmer air — exacerbate pollution, especially in river valleys.
Allegheny County also ranks in the top 2% of U.S. counties for cancer risk from about 200 potentially cancer-causing pollutants identified by the EPA, according to a 2013 report from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.
SO2 is not a carcinogen, but other substances also found in coke oven gas put those emissions among the top potential cancer drivers in the region, according to the report.
“That risk is going to be much more elevated the closer you are to those point sources,” like the Clairton Plant, said Jim Fabisiak, director of the Center for Health Environments and Communities at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health.
Pinpointing what’s causing cancer — whether it’s air pollution, or some combination of factors like diesel exhaust and smoking — is challenging, he said.
Residents like Macus are worried about taking chances on their health.
He keeps two air purifiers in his house — one in the bedroom, one in the kitchen — along with a filter on the furnace.
He joined with Clairton residents to initiate a class action lawsuit in 2017 against U.S. Steel over emissions from its Clairton Coke Works. Best-case scenario, the plant would eliminate the pollution or shut down. At the very least, he had hoped they would win enough to offset moving expenses.
The lawsuit didn’t go anywhere. Macus hasn’t either.
“I shouldn’t have to leave here,” he said.