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Pollution around Highlands schools among worst in nation

| Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008

The air quality near Highlands School District buildings is among the worst in the nation, according to a national study of air quality at schools across the country conducted by USA Today and researchers from two universities.

Highlands High School, Highlands Middle School and Heights Elementary, all located in Harrison, rank in the first percentile of schools with bad air quality. Farimount Elementary in Brackenridge fell in the third percentile while Grandview Elementary in Tarentum ranks in the fourth percentile and Fawn Elementary in Fawn Township ranks in the seventh percentile.

According to the study, which involved researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, only 30 schools in the country have worse air quality than Highlands Senior High School.

Chromium is listed as the key toxic chemical responsible for the bad air quality. It is one of the chemical compounds involved with the production of stainless steel, the main product of ATI-Allegheny Ludlum Corp.'s Brackenridge Works, located within two miles of all the Highlands' schools except for Fawn Elementary.

Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, expressed some doubts in regard to the findings, which were based on four to seven days of monitoring the air.

"We certainly have some questions about the findings," Cole said. "You have to be very cautious about drawing conclusions from their study. For one thing, the monitoring data is based on a very short period of time."

He said the effects on health are best determined by collecting data over months. Still, the study has prompted the health department to take a closer look at the situation.

"What we are going to do is, next week we are going to set up a monitoring station near the high school to measure not only chromium but for three other metals that are associated with emissions from stainless steelmaking: nickel, manganese and lead," Cole said. "We will be monitoring for several months.

"We hope to have the instrument installed and operating by sometime next week. It is, I was told, more sophisticated than the instrument used in the USA Today study."

The article about the study, in Tuesday's edition of USA Today, noted the short period of monitoring compared with longer periods that county, state or federal governments do.

The story quoted Patrick Breysse, a Johns Hopkins scientist, that the monitoring is "snapshot of pollution" and that parents "shouldn't take these results and abandon their schools. But, they certainly need to start asking people in authority to find out more."

That's what Highlands Superintendent Karol Galcik is doing. Galcik said district officials became aware of the study and news story when someone from USA Today contacted the district to advise them of it Monday.

"Of course, it elevates your level of concern," Galcik said. "I have a call in to EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and I also have a call into Allegheny Ludlum because they do testing here around us. I want to see what they can tell us about his chromium."

"Hopefully, they can tell us that it is not this cancer-causing agent."

The story and accompanying chart note that there are two types of chromium. One is benign but the other, Chromium-6 is a cancer-causing agent. USA Today's testing could not differentiate between the two types.

Dan Greenfield, spokesman for Allegheny Ludlum, said the story noted that the researchers are not sure of exactly what kind of chromium they detected. He said it is "extremely unlikely" that Ludlum's facilities emit the harmful chromium.

"We have state-of-the-art equipment to control pollution emissions," Greenfield said. "We have been operating well within our limits. Allegheny Ludlum tries hard to be a good neighbor.

"We operate the facilities within the permits that we were given."

He said that is one reason why the company is consolidating its Natrona meltshop into the meltshop in the main Brackenridge plant area. He said the Natrona meltshop is the oldest in the company and is outdated.

"I don't have any data that tells me there has been an environmental incident at the Brackenridge meltshop in a long time," Greenfield said. "It's been a good while. I don't even remember when we had an environmental incident in the area. The facilities have been well within compliance for some time."

Cole, however, said that Ludlum has been cited for violations in recent years.

"I can tell you that, at the meltshop, there have been some violations," he said. "That is one of the reasons why they are doing what they are doing, to bring the plant up to meet our air quality standards.

"I can tell you there have been violations intermittently over the past few years. We're talking about excessive emissions from their operations. They have been in violation of our air pollution control regulations."

He said the company entered into a consent agreement with the health department in April 2006 for violations and paid a penalty of $289,725.

"These were for violations cited in early 2005 at the Brackenridge plant and the other facility in Natrona," Cole said. "In June 2007, they paid a civil penalty of $16,800 to settle violations at the Natrona facility."

He said presently the health department has a consent agreement pending with HARSCO Corp., which does the slag processing for Allegheny Ludlum. He said it is for violations the company committed while doing that work. However, Cole said he could not provide details about that agreement because it has not been finalized.

Additional Information:

Learn about your school's air

To see where your school ranks in terms of air pollution and to learn more about the methodology of the air-quality study, log on to:

www.usatoday.com/news/nation/environment/school-air-monitoring1.htm.

There, you will find a drop-down box with all 50 states. Choose Pennsylvania and then select the school your children attend to see the relative air quality near their school and find out what kinds of toxins might be in the air they breathe. The information will also show you where your school ranks nationwide in terms of air quality.

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