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GASP 50th Anniversary Gala
Where: Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., Oakland, Pittsburgh
When: 5 p.m. Oct. 12
Tickets: Available at Eventbrite. All proceeds benefit GASP.
Fifty years ago, the goal of the Group Against Smog and Pollution was to be a watchdog, fighting for cleaner air for Pittsburgh-area residents.
One of its targets back when it was formed in 1969 was the then-mighty U.S. Steel Corp., which owned mills up and down the valley.
As GASP celebrates its 50th anniversary, U.S. Steel --- especially its Clairton Plant --- remains in focus, especially after a fire at that facility on Christmas Eve destroyed a desulfurization unit.
The resulting toxins released into the air affected 22 Mon Valley communities, causing the Allegheny County Health Department to put the region under an air quality alert.
U.S. Steel “needs to consider shutting down their oldest batteries” at Clairton Plant, said Rachel Filippini, GASP executive director. “They have many. Some are more than 50 years old.”
By doing that, she argued, U.S. Steel can reduce emissions coming from the plant.
During the process of making coke, sulfur dioxide is released into the air. The unit that caught fire is used to block the sulfur dioxide from being released into the environment.
Though the desulfurization equipment has been repaired, GASP continues to monitor data on levels of hydrogen sulfide and PM 2.5 in the air. PM 2.5 are tiny particles that are composed of carbon at their core, with toxins that stick to the outside of that.
Clairton Plant is a large producer of PM 2.5, which Filippini said aggravates breathing problems. PM 2.5 particles attack the cardiovascular system and can trigger asthma attacks.
Filippini described how dangerous PM 2.5 can be.
“The smaller the particle, the more hazardous it is, because it can go deeper into the body,” she said. Filippini acknowledged that PM 2.5 also can come from a number of other sources besides Clairton Plant, including open fires and the tailpipes of vehicles --- especially diesel-powered trucks, trains and buses.
Since December's accident, levels of both hydrogen sulfides and PM 2.5 have shown improvement, Filippini said, and stayed in ranges deemed acceptable. But GASP, she said, would like to see the air quality in the Mon Valley area be something more than just “passable,” and it strongly feels that can be achieved.
“We should be setting our sights higher, not just (monitoring) big stationary sources (such as Clairton Plant), but with monitoring cars, trucks and more,” Filippini said.
GASP also would like to see more positive steps taken by elected officials. “Politicians need to listen more when people voice their concerns, or when they’re complaining about smells or pollutants,” Filippini said. “If (residents) see something, they need to know how to report it.”
(Last week, state Rep. Austin Davis of McKeesport introduced legislation that would almost double the maximum fine that state officials can levy against polluters who violate air quality standards, and which would require industrial facilities to install municipal warning systems.)
According to Filippini, GASP believes there need to be better resources for collecting complaints about pollution. Right now, all complaints about air pollution in Allegheny County are fielded by the Health Department. GASP thinks many residents don't know they have a right to contact the department to complain or voice air quality concerns.
And, Filippini said, political leaders need to be stronger advocates for people who are concerned about air quality.
In February, five state legislators held a town hall meeting to allow Clairton residents and environmental groups to voice their concerns to representatives from U.S. Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department.
At the meeting, state Sen. Jim Brewster suggested to U.S. Steel that the company should hold regularly scheduled meetings with groups, such as GASP, in hopes of working together on solutions.
Those meetings have not happened and U.S. Steel has yet to reach out to GASP, Filippini said. The only meetings held so far have been between U.S. Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department, she said.
As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, GASP is continuing its efforts to achieve clean air through a number of ways. Representatives give “Air Quality 101” talks to communities, companies and schools, including at afterschool programs. Events are advertised on the group's website.
GASP also offers an Air Quality Summer Camp for children that includes a week-long series of field trips, nature explorations, air monitoring and science experiments, Filippini said.
In the meantime, GASP will continue monitoring the effects of pollution from Clairton Plant and other facilities, Filippini said --- and when U.S. Steel is ready to pursue meetings to discuss Clairton Plant, as suggested by Brewster, GASP is open to that as well, she said.
Charlotte Hopkins is a freelance writer from West Elizabeth. She may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published August 18, 2019.