Clairton Coke Works fire renews residents’ concerns over air quality |

Clairton Coke Works fire renews residents’ concerns over air quality

Jamie Martines
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Steam is emitted from a quench tower at the Clairton Coke Works Plant on June 18, 2019.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Donald Fry, 76, of Clairton, speaks to a Tribune-Review reporter about the fire at the Clairton Coke Works Plant on June 18, 2019.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
John Pfefferkorn, 67, of Clairton, speaks to a Tribune-Review reporter about the fire at the Clairton Coke Works Plant on June 18, 2019.

Some Mon Valley residents are once again wondering if their air is safe to breathe after another fire this week at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.

“It’s really scary actually, because it’s summertime, and we like to be outside,” Clairton resident Tonya Carroll, 29, said Tuesday.

Carroll, who has two young children, can see some of the plant’s stacks from her porch on Locust Avenue, less than a mile from the plant. She worries her little ones are at risk for developing respiratory issues.

An early-morning electrical fire Monday at the Clairton Coke Works caused the shutdown of three control rooms at the plant — 1, 2 and 5 —responsible for pollution control. That shutdown included the same equipment that was offline for months following a Dec. 24 fire at the facility. During the first shutdown, the Allegheny County Health Department recorded several instances of higher-than-normal emissions of sulfur dioxide, or SO2, from the plant.

Pollution controls are now back online, and the Allegheny County Health Department confirmed Tuesday that department air quality monitors did not record SO2 emissions that exceeded federal limits. SO2 is a colorless gas that could cause irritation to the nose, eyes and throat in healthy people, and could exacerbate existing respiratory conditions.

“With that fire, shouldn’t they shut it down?” said Derique Johnson, a lifelong resident of Clairton.

The stacks sometimes billow yellow or brown plumes — and that’s concerning, said Johnson, 23. But he also worries about the potential for larger, more catastrophic fires or explosions at the plant.

Carol Johnson, 61, has lived in Clairton for about 21 years. She has COPD — a respiratory condition that makes it difficult to breathe — and worries that pollution from the plant makes it worse.

She worries that her grandchildren, who often visit her home on Maple Avenue, less than a mile from the plant, could also be at risk. She was up late with her grandson the night before, who had a bad cough, she said.

“I don’t know how dangerous all that is,” she said.

Others say concerns about the plant are overblown.

Tanya Lewis, 37, spent a humid Tuesday afternoon at a playground off Division Avenue.

She has 11 children — none of them have breathing problems, she said — and has lived in Clairton her entire life. She has worked at the plant, and her father, 61, has worked at the plant since he was 17. Neither have experienced breathing issues, she said.

“It’s just hype,” Lewis said as kids jumped from the swings and climbed over the playground equipment nearby. “Everybody’s got to complain about something.”

Clairton residents living a bit farther from the plant — about a mile uphill — say that they don’t feel the effects of pollution as intensely.

“There’s always a concern about the air, we always have that,” John Pfefferkorn, 67, said from his Wylie Avenue home.

He knows the jobs at the plant are important: The retired steel worker was born in McKeesport but has been living in Clairton for about 40 years, having worked at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works in West Mifflin after earning a teaching degree.

The air is better now than it was back then, he said. But he’d like to see U.S. Steel protect both jobs and the health of local residents.

“You can have it both ways,” he said.

Donald Fry, 76, has lived in his Mitchell Avenue home — a local landmark and former home of Clairton Coke Works Superintendent Henry Davis from 1903 to 1910 — for about 20 years.

At this point, he’s not surprised to find debris or film on his lawn furniture. But earlier this year, in the months after the December fire at the Clairton Coke Works, he came down with pneumonia. His partner, Rebecca Starr, 75, had bronchitis. His son, who lives in Scott Township, can’t visit for long — he has asthma, and it gets worse when he comes by the house.

“It could have been a fluke,” Starr said of their recent illnesses, adding that she has no history of respiratory issues.

She’d like to leave the city, but knows they might have difficulty selling the house. Area scientists studying air pollution have set up a sensor in the couple’s backyard to monitor air quality. It’s attached to an old, rusty pole that used to hold up a birdhouse, and a group stops by once a month to take readings, Starr said.

U.S. Steel has not released additional details about the cause of the fire.

The county health department said it “remains concerned about redundancies to equipment and will be continuing to push U.S. Steel to address that concern and ensure that a failure such as this can be avoided in the future.”

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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