Johnie Perryman retired to Clairton 12 years ago, hoping to settle into a cheap home near an old friend in Pittsburgh.
With a wide front porch and oversize windows, the spacious, $72,900 Mitchell Avenue home about a mile from the Clairton Plant is full of artwork and mementos from a life lived around the world.
There’s a 1,245-pound square grand piano in the living room.
“And I’m ready to leave it all,” said Perryman, a 75-year-old former labor union business representative from Seattle, who is now considering a move south.
The Clairton Plant is a well-documented site of air pollution. It’s one of three facilities that make up U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works operation.
U.S. Steel claims Clairton is the largest coke-making facility in North America, churning out 4.3 million tons of coke annually, or about 11,000 tons per day.
Coke is used as fuel for blast furnaces. But producing coke — light-gray lumps with a silver sheen — is dirty work, as coal is baked at high temperatures around the clock. A byproduct of that process, coke oven gas, contains pollutants like sulfur, light oil, tar and ammonia, which are typically recovered and sold to other industrial consumers. The clean gas is used in other parts of the steelmaking process.
On Dec. 24, a gas-fueled fire tore through the plant’s No. 2 Control Room, burning for about two hours and twisting 10-inch beams that supported the roof. Critical equipment used to clean coke oven gas was damaged and pollution control systems were shut down.
Starting about two and a half weeks after the fire, the Allegheny County Health Department for months began warning residents of higher than normal levels of sulfur dioxide, or SO2, emanating from the plant. SO2 is a colorless gas that smells like a struck match and causes irritation to the throat, nose and eyes. Young people, the elderly and those with underlying health issues like asthma or cardiac problems are especially vulnerable, but even healthy adults could experience symptoms like headache or difficulty breathing upon exposure.
During that period, SO2 levels exceeded federal hourly emissions standards 10 times, according to data recorded by health department air quality monitors in Liberty and North Braddock. Of those instances, seven occurred in the two and a half weeks before the health department notified the public of the health risk.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-ReviewKenlein Ogletree, 17, hands Demetrius Weatherspoon, 16, an ice cream from Miller Ave. Soft Serve & Dee-Lites.
Perryman worried that staying in Clairton could be a matter of life and death: He already had high blood pressure, and uses a walker to help him move around. After the December fire, he often felt dizzy and tired, and started wearing a mask around the house that covers his eyes, nose and mouth. He runs an air purifier in his bedroom and keeps his windows closed most of the time.
As he started making plans to move, other residents, along with Pittsburgh-area environmental groups, pleaded with state and local officials to consider closing the plant or scaling back operations. It’s a move that industry, labor and some municipal officials warned would be a death knell for the City of Clairton.
“The question is, is Clairton surviving now?” Perryman asked.
Repairs were complete and pollution control equipment was brought back online by early April, setting U.S. Steel — which reported $1.1 billion in net earnings for 2018 — back $31 million and counting, according to first quarter earnings reports. Production was slowed by about 35%.
“Bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to good companies,” said Sara Greenstein, the company’s senior vice president for consumer solutions. “This was a significant fire and the cause is still under investigation, in its final stages while the experts finish everything up.”
The Allegheny County Health Department is evaluating the fire and its aftermath and has not yet issued penalties.
Experts studying air quality near the plant registered an increase in asthma-related respiratory issues in the months immediately following the fire.
“These sulfur dioxide exceedances were very high, and they actually trigger acute symptoms within minutes,” Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of allergy and asthma at East Suburban Pediatrics, said of spikes in SO2.
Starting in September, Gentile studied 15 Clairton elementary school students with asthma. Prior to the fire, all of those students’ symptoms were under control, she said.
By January, five of the students were experiencing worsening symptoms, including decreases in lung function. Some reported an increased use of rescue inhalers or use of steroids, which are used to treat severe asthma attacks. Another group of students participating in the study, located in Hazelwood, about 10 miles from Clairton, exhibited no such changes.
“That’s very significant, because January is not a time when pediatric asthma acts up,” said Gentile, who in February shared her findings before a joint Pennsylvania Senate and House Democratic Policy Committee meeting.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-ReviewThe Clairton High School football team warms up before a game against Imani Christian on Oct. 5, 2018.
The Clairton School District, which has 813 students in kindergarten to 12th grade, does not have a formal policy in place for monitoring air quality, Superintendent Ginny Hunt said. School nurses do watch local and federal monitors, and will alert principals and coaches if students should be kept inside, she said.
Hunt isn’t aware of any plans to change this policy.
“More than likely, I would tend to think that this has been an ongoing problem for years,” she said. “For the most part, our kids — other than using the playground for recess — are inside.”
West Jefferson Hills School District, located about five miles from Clairton with 3,019 students, started keeping elementary school students inside for recess or physical education during bad air quality days after the fire, Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.
“We do have kids with asthma, we do have kids who are medically fragile, and we thought it was the most proactive thing to do,” said Ghilani, who also has asthma and experienced “one of the worst bouts of illness” this spring.
A separate study of adult asthma patients found that those living within 10 miles of the plant also reported experiencing more frequent attacks in the weeks immediately following the fire, along with the need to increase medication use, like an inhaler, said Brandy Hill, a researcher with the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.
That study of 83 asthma patients allowed researchers to capture how unusually high levels of sulfur dioxide affected asthma patients, Hill said.
Historical data from a registry, which includes about 2,300 asthma patients, 1,600 in Allegheny County, indicates that some registry participants living in the Mon Valley may have lower lung function than counterparts living more than 10 miles from the plant, Hill said.
Their risk of asthma-related emergency room visits is also two times higher, she said.
Spokespeople for both Allegheny Health Network and UPMC hospitals were not able to supply data on emergency room visits following the Dec. 24 fire.
Allegheny County Health Department officials have said that they did not see a spike in emergency room visits during that period. Because of pending litigation, they declined to comment on what specific public health concerns the department is monitoring in Clairton.
In May, the county health department joined a federal lawsuit filed by the National Environmental Law Center on behalf of Penn Environment and the Clean Air Council, which alleges U.S. Steel violated Clean Air Act permit violations related to coke oven gas pollution since the fire.
As for the 1,200 plant employees represented by United Steelworkers Local 1557, union President Don Furko said he didn’t hear about any health concerns coming from members following the fire.
About 80 percent of those workers live within 25 miles of the plant, Furko said. About 450 are residents of Allegheny County, and about 55 employees live in Clairton and Jefferson Hills.
The site known today as the Clairton Plant was built in 1901 by the St. Clair Steel Company. It was acquired by U.S. Steel in 1904, and the first coke batteries were built in 1918.
Throughout the 1900s, the plant grew and the city grew with it. By the 1950s, Clairton’s population peaked at 19,652, according to Census data. About 63 percent of the city’s population worked in manufacturing.
In the 1970s, the global steel industry began to decline. In December 1983, U.S. Steel announced company-wide cutbacks, eliminating more than 15,000 jobs.
By 1984, coke battery crews shrank and some facilities were shut down. Four years later, the City of Clairton was broke. The city’s population dropped from 12,188 to 9,656 from 1980 to 1990.
Mayor Richard Lattanzi, 55, was in high school when U.S. Steel downsized throughout the early 1980s. His father and other family members were working at the plant at the time.
“It changed a lot of people’s plans,” Lattanzi said of the shutdown. “And you could just see the town in general, it just looked like they were lost.”
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-ReviewA view from St. Clair Avenue in Clairton.
Lattanzi went on to attend trade school and become a plumber, but later took a job at the Irvin Plant, also part of the U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works.
He’s worked there for the past 28 years, spending the last seven as a safety coordinator. The mayorship is part-time and pays $160 every two weeks.
At a time when the city’s relationship to the Clairton Plant feels more distant than ever, another shutdown could lead to another citywide exodus, he said.
The city would risk losing at least a third of its tax base, by Lattanzi’s estimates. The Clairton plant pays the city $201,100 in real estate tax and workers contribute about $65,800 to the business privilege tax, officials said.
About 1,000 of the city’s 4,000 homes are abandoned or blighted, and residents have gone without a grocery store for over a decade.
Today, about 6,600 people live in Clairton, where the median household income was $31,112 in 2017 and 28% of residents lived in poverty, according to census data.
Andy Miklos, 69, started working at the plant in 1974 as a laborer. He spent 34 of his 43 and a half years at the Clairton Plant as a union representative, including two terms as union president. He’s retired now and serves as a member of the nearby Elizabeth Borough Council.
Miklos remembers the good times, when the plant employed over four times as many people as it does today. He wishes the men and women who work there now could have seen it then.
“They would understand why it’s so important we protect what is left,” he said.
He also remembers how devastated people were when the plant cut production in the 1980s. But some things have improved, like working conditions and safety measures for workers, he said.
“As far as the workforce, it’s far safer for them today than the coke oven battery of ’74, I can tell you that,” Miklos said.
U.S. Steel also seems to have become more open, sharing more information with the public and environmental advocates than they have before, he said.
Devastating, catastrophic and significant are all words Clairton Plant Manager Mike Rhoads uses to describe the Dec. 24 fire.
Rhoads lives in North Huntingdon, about 15 miles east of Clairton in Westmoreland County. He’s worked for U.S. Steel throughout his career.
The Somerset County native took his first job at the plant in 1994 after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. Back then, Batteries 7,8 and 9 were operational. Now, they’re covered by overgrown foliage.
The plant operates 10 batteries that house a total of 708 ovens across the facility. Inside, coal is baked for about 18 hours at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit to produce coke. The 25 tons of pellets are red-hot when they’re pushed from the coke ovens, flames leaping from the cart until the coke is drenched with water and cooled to about 450 degrees. That’s when a pillow of steam belches from the quench towers above.
Rhoads became manager in 2015. His first management job at the plant was in the No. 2 Control Room, where the fire occurred. It’s modestly named: The warehouse, about the size of a football field, houses over a dozen compressors. Each weighs more than 10 tons and hums so loud ear plugs barely dull the sound. A tangle of yellow and silver pipes, some spouting steam, snake through and around the space as the noisy compressors pump, compress and push coke oven gas through processes intended to clean it.
“I’ve spent a lot of hours of my life in this facility, so I’m very proud of this facility,” he said, touting U.S. Steel’s investments and upgrades to comply with local and federal emissions standards. “What we went through with this fire in No. 2 Control Room is a tremendous setback for us, in that we’ve done so much work to be compliant with the sulfur dioxide state implementation plan, and the fire was a tremendous setback.”
In response to criticism that the company has done too little to address persistent air quality problems, U.S. Steel is now promising even cleaner air.
“We have been making investments and our performance reflects that,” Greenstein said. “The fire was a major setback, no doubt. And yet we have recovered from the fire. And since that recovery, have gotten back on track.”Shortly after repairs to damage caused by the Dec. 24 fire were complete, the company announced it would invest $1 billion to upgrade facilities at the Clairton Plant and the Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-ReviewU.S. Steel employees work inside the Clairton Plant on Tuesday, May 7, 2019.
U.S. Steel officials claim that these investments will reduce emissions, including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. None of the 3,000 union jobs at the three Mon Valley Works facilities are expected to be lost.
Air quality advocates like Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based organization Breathe Project, aren’t convinced that the investment is anything more than a public relations strategy because it doesn’t target existing infrastructure, like leaky coke oven batteries, that are known sources of air pollution.
He also worries that reports on SO2 emissions since the fire may have overshadowed other harmful pollutants, like particulate matter, or the carcinogen benzene.
“The long-term future for our children, for people who are older, for people who have health issues — air quality makes them worse,” he said. “For communities that live near pollution sources, they have higher rates of health issues, and that’s not fair.”