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What are Yinz breathing? The battle to breathe clean air

By Jordan Slobodinsky, Point Park News Service

Photo by Jordan Slobodinsky.

The view of Clairton Coke Works from Melanie Meade’s backyard is a visual reminder of the lifetime of difficulty her family has endured from one of Allegheny County’s worst polluters.

Cheryl Hurt has seen and breathed soot-laden air as a child, and now as a daycare owner in Clairton, she’s actively trying to protect children from the same fate.

Filmmaker Mark Dixon is so concerned with pollution in the area that he’s shooting a documentary to shed light on the state of Pittsburgh’s air.

This is the front line of Pittsburgh locals trying to defend communities from serial polluters that have allowed Allegheny County to house some of the worst air east of the Rocky Mountains.

Though it varies from area to area, some of what you may find in the air is benzyne, formaldehyde, and any of almost 200 toxins produced by fossil fuels that are not being regulated in the county.

The fight for clean air is nothing new to the Pittsburgh area. According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report, Allegheny County is in the top 20 most polluted areas in the country. One of the most well-known facts about this area is that it was once an industrial powerhouse.

These days, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh thrive with a modernized reputation and specializations in the medical field. However, the area is still battling industrial companies, and for people like Meade, there are still memories of how this pollution started.

“For most of my life, that is the view I’ve had: Clairton Coke Works. The plumes and the huge smoke, and when we were younger, we used to think that the plumes made the clouds,” Meade said. “When I returned and went to college here, I started learning about the pollution and about how the industries were put in poor locations or where poor people wouldn’t know enough to fight against it.”

Jamin Bogi is the policy and outreach coordinator for Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). He says this area is one of the only areas that cannot meet federal guidelines for particulate matter, solid particles and liquids droplets of pollution found in the air.

Bogi said Clairton Coke Works is not the only entity to blame, but also the massive amounts of gasoline/diesel vehicles, busses, trains and construction equipment in the county. He and GASP have been fighting the Coke Works in court ever since they began, and he said that the fines haven’t had real consequence.

“Every five years permits expire, and there are facilities with old permits,” Bogi said. “When they [Allegheny County officials] do find repeat offenders, they need to not just give them a slap on the exhaust pipe but penalize them enough so that paying the fine hurts. We need real political will to take on these serial polluters.”

According to Bogi, short term particle pollution is something that can be emitted from industrial facilities like Clairton Coke Works. Some citizens, like Meade, are forced to improvise to protect their families from diseases that the air can cause.

Meade has two children, ages 8 and 21. Despite their love of football, Meade felt that because how close the practice field was to the plant, she needed to pull her youngest from the program.

“He loved it, and that’s what the community is driven by: football. When I had my second child, I told him he wasn’t going to be involved with it anymore and practice down by the coke works,” Meade said.

Meade said she can remember athletes who have died from cancer caused by harmful air in the area. Despite this, coaches continue to host practices where children and teenagers are more susceptible to harmful chemicals in the air. Most of all, she worries that community members are ignoring the issue.

“The coaches didn’t know and don’t want to discuss or take time because their focus is football,” Meade said.

In recent years, Meade has become an activist. She believes that the community needs to be more engaged and educate themselves on ways to defend themselves from the poisonous air. She has found the lack of groups trying to protect the citizens of Clairton and Allegheny County disturbing.

“The children are our future. If we have only taken their value as to their athletic ability or cheerleading ability, then we have limited their possibility. For me, I would really like to have a community center that is environmental or make the steel mill give us a location to discuss these issues,” Meade said.

Photo by Jordan Slobodinsky.

In the same way that Meade protects her family, Hurt utilizes the spec monitor in her home to decide whether the air is both clean and safe enough for children to play outside or not.

Over the last few years, she began attending information sessions to learn more.

“I began to go look out the window and look at the smoke, then I began to wonder more about this,” Hurt said. “My grandson, when he was born, had an asthmatic condition.”

In a 2017 study from the Allegheny County Medical Society Bulletin found that about 18 percent of children attending the Clairton Elementary School have asthma.

Both Meade and Hurt continue to educate others about air pollution despite some people not wanting to acknowledge the issue. Meade notes that there has been a lack of interest or education on pollution by local officials and politicians. However, they are not alone in their fight to protect air quality.

Because of stories like Meade’s and Hurt’s, Dixon has taken it upon himself to document the true nature of the environment in Pittsburgh. Dixon is currently in the process of creating a documentary focusing on air quality, “Inversion: The Unfinished Business of Pittsburgh Air.”

Dixon moved to the area in 2006 and has studied environmental sustainability in all 50 states. After attending the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, Dixons said he began to think about what he could do to address climate change. After debating how he could contribute, he decided to focus locally.

“I’m a jogger, and I would go outside and a lot of the time, it would smell,” Dixon said. “It was deeply disturbing to me that I could smell industrial pollutants that had a powerful, bad smell as I was jogging, and I thought, ‘Well, this certainly is not good for me.’”

Allegheny County is in the top two percent of counties for cancer risk due to air quality, Dixon said.

Through his filming and research, Dixon believes that Pittsburgh has the most to gain from responding to climate change. The way he sees it, the only way to go from here is up.

“We stop burning fossil fuels locally, then we win on air quality more than any other county in the country in terms of improved quality of life and health,” Dixon said.

Dixon began his documentary in 2016 after Allegheny County blocked a lawsuit filed by PennFuture against Clairton Coke Works. The environmental group claimed the facility was violating legal pollution levels. Since starting the project, Dixon has seen multiple forms of pollution and has delved into different ways to combat the issue.

“This is my home, this is where my grandchildren are raised, this is where my community has to breathe all of this. It doesn’t matter that I have a daycare so close [to the pollution] because most of the children live in Clairton, and they’re breathing it,” Hurt said.

The Clairton facility is the largest coke manufacturing facility in the United States. The plant operates 10 coke oven batteries and produces 4.3 million tons of coke annually, according to U.S. Steel.

In 2018, the plant was fined $1 million for air pollution and $620,316 for emission problems, including the release of a cancercausing carcinogens into the air. Beyond that, some argue the plants are an economic necessity. But others, like Meade, speculate about its impact on the local community.

“I bet you not even 50 people form the Clairton community work for Clairton Coke Works,” Meade said. “We have a city that looks battered, and we have a billion-dollar coke works facility by our river.”

In Allegheny County, groups like GASP and the Breathe Project are conducting research to to monitor facilities like Clairton Coke Works in an attempt to control the amount of toxins released into the air.

“Hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, in our metro area are breathing levels of pollution that are unsafe,” Bogi said. “They harm our quality of life, they make us sick, and they lead to premature death in some cases.”

Matthew Mehalik, the Executive Director of the Breathe Project, is also working to take on serial polluters and enact real political change. He and his team are monitoring network data in the air that is coming into southwestern Pennsylvania. He says that while some of the air is getting better because of the implementation of the Clean Air Act, there is a lot of work to do.

“We have not conquered all of the legacy sustainability challenges that Pittsburgh had set out to address over the last 30 years,” Mehalik said. “As this region’s economy really diversifies and transforms itself from one that was based on heavy manufacturing, [and] commodities industries, that have a low margin but require high volume [of pollutants] that are volatile in their value. So that means that our region has not really come to terms with all those things.”

Much like Bogi, Mehalik believes that it will take a mixture of citizen education and political stiffness on serial polluters to permanently improve Pittsburgh’s airways.

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