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Allegheny County: Koppers plant in Clairton responsible for hydrocarbon release

| Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

The Allegheny County Health Department has determined that the Koppers Inc. Clairton plant was the source of a strange odor that sickened four barge workers on Feb. 11.

Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the department, said malfunctioning equipment in the plant caused a heavier-than-usual venting of hydrocarbons or volatile organic compounds. The Koppers plant is adjacent to U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works and converts crude coke oven tars from the plant into liquid pitch and other liquid products such as creosote and chemical oil, according to the company's web site.

Bob Oltmanns, a Koppers spokesman, disputed the county assessment of the incident's cause, saying the problem was an excessive temperature difference between two tanks.

“We were transferring a hot liquid material from one tank into another,” he said.

When the naphthalene, at several hundred degrees, hit the second tank, it created a vapor that was vented, Oltmanns said.

“Naphthalene smells like mothballs,” he said.

Four U.S. Steel workers were treated and released at Jefferson Regional Medical Center for breathing problems, but they were back at work on their next shift, he said.

“It would cause you some light-headedness, but it has no long-term health effects at that dosage,” he said.

The company is still investigating the incident and will submit its findings to the state Department of Environmental Protection and the health department, Oltmanns said.

Cole said the odor was first detected around 7 p.m. The original surge tapered off within a few minutes but the plant kept venting above normal levels for about two hours, he said.

The Glassport Police Department reported the odor to the health department at about 9:30 p.m. and one of its investigators was in the area about an hour later, Cole said. That investigator took air samples but didn't detect any elevated levels of the hydrocarbons, which would indicate that they had dissipated by then, he said.

The health department is still conducting the investigation and hasn't determined whether to cite the plant or what other corrective action to take, Cole said.

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