Brett Ciccotelli photo via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Mon-Yough residents reacted angrily after the Allegheny County Health Department warned people with heart and lung conditions to avoid strenuous outdoor activities due to equipment problems at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant.
On social media, they questioned why the department waited 16 days before issuing the warning.
The health department's alert, issued Wednesday, cautioned Mon-Yough area residents --- especially children, the elderly and those suffering from conditions such as asthma, emphysema or bronchitis --- to avoid strenuous outdoor activities until further notice.
According to the health department, sulfur dioxide emissions at the Clairton Plant have gone above acceptable levels six times since a fire on Dec. 24 that knocked out two pieces of emissions equipment known as "gas dispatcher" stations.
"We should have been made aware of this as soon as this happened, not weeks later," said Tube City Almanac reader Nancy Cipriani Kacik.
"Why not put out the information when you knew it was a possibility, simply as a precaution?" reader Tina Kapottas of White Oak asked. "Terrible management!"
Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, on Thursday called the alert, which was issued Wednesday, "an unprecedented step ... to provide more information on an ongoing basis to our residents."
The situation is "not as simple" as, for example, shutting down a restaurant that has violated health codes, she said in a statement.
“The layers of multiple state, local and federal regulations related to air quality are far more complex and create potential legal issues that could result in delayed mitigation efforts," Hacker said.
The Clairton Plant produces coke, a fuel used in steelmaking, by super-heating coal to remove impurities. Since the fire on Christmas Eve, the health department has been particularly concerned about measurements from nearby monitors that have shown high amounts of sulfur dioxide in the air around the plant on six separate occasions.
An invisible gas that has a strong odor --- like that of a match being struck --- sulfur dioxide can cause breathing problems in some cases.
"While the exceedances thus far have been short, they have also been unpredictable," Hacker said. "Out of an abundance of caution, we issued the alert to ensure that the public was aware of the situation. Our mission and the responsibility of this department is to protect, first and foremost, the health of our residents."
Hacker said the health department's Air Quality Program Managers have been working closely with U.S. Steel managers.
Following the fire, she said, "we posted an alert on the ACHD Facebook page advising of the potential for air quality issues, and indicating that we had not yet seen any exceedance."
Sulfur dioxide levels from the plant exceeded acceptable limits for the first time on Dec. 26, she said.
“The plant took additional steps to mitigate the problem and conveyed the same to our Air Quality Program," Hacker said. "After subsequent exceedances on Dec. 28 and in early January, ACHD officials and plant officials had in-depth conversations about additional mitigation steps and mandated weekly reporting."
On Tuesday (Jan. 8), there were two more instances when sulfur dioxide levels went above levels considered safe, she said.
That's when the health department decided to issue a formal warning to the public, Hacker said.
"Based on ACHD conversations with the plant, U.S. Steel indicated that there were several actions they could take to mitigate the impact," she said. "ACHD approved their mitigation measures and agreed to their implementation."
Among other steps, the health department said, the company has made several emergency modifications, including extending the amount of time for coking the coal and using natural gas instead of coke oven gas. Excess gas also is being burned off, or "flared."
The health department is prepared "to issue orders to require additional mitigation efforts" by U.S. Steel, Hacker said, and is considering possible enforcement options and penalties.
Tube City Almanac has emailed both County Councilman Bob Macey Jr. of West Mifflin, who represents many of the affected communities, including Duquesne, McKeesport, Dravosburg, Glassport, Liberty and Lincoln; and County Councilman John Palmiere, who represents Clairton and Jefferson Hills and chairs council's Health and Human Services committee, to ask them for comment.
Neither Macey nor Palmiere had yet responded as of Friday afternoon.
Hacker said full reports about the efforts to correct the problem at Clairton Plant are available at http://bit.ly/AQAlertMonValley.
In addition, she said, hourly air quality data updates from the Liberty Borough air quality monitor are available at the health department's website.
Hacker said the health department also will "explore other ways to further improve our outreach efforts."
Conflict of Interest Note: The author of this story is a U.S. Steel shareholder.
Jason Togyer is the editor of Tube City Almanac and the volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published January 11, 2019.