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Rotten-Egg Odor Vexes Companies, Local Officials

Smell not easily traced; reports say up to nine-mile radius affected

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
May 07, 2024
Posted in: State & Region

* Editor’s Note — This story was corrected after publication. Paragraphs marked with * have been edited.

Conflict of interest notice: The writer of this story is a U.S. Steel shareholder.

U.S. Steel said its Mon Valley facilities, including Irvin Plant, seen here from Glassport, are operating normally. A “rotten egg” or “natural gas” smell reported by residents from West Homestead to Clairton. (Tube City Almanac photo)

A persistent smell of rotten eggs or natural gas in the Mon-Yough area has not been traced to leaks in any natural gas pipelines and local companies and officials are having a difficult time tracking its source.*

Last week, personnel from local fire departments, utility providers, U.S. Steel and a variety of agencies met to discuss the smell, which has plagued communities from West Homestead to Clairton.

There is no immediate danger to the public, according to an email from Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey of West Mifflin, who convened the meeting.

“It’s been going on for a few months at least,” said Nick Paradise, a spokesperson for Peoples Gas, the dominant natural gas supplier in the McKeesport region. “It’s not necessarily every day — it ebbs and flows.”

“All of our pollution equipment is operating normally,” Amanda Malkowski, spokesperson for U.S. Steel, said in a phone interview Tuesday.*

Between April 28 and May 3, Mon-Yough area air quality monitors measured hydrogen sulfide levels well above the 5 parts-per-billion standard established by regulators, but officials from U.S. Steel said this week that all of its pollution equipment is operating normally. (Source: Allegheny County Health Department)

Last week, air-quality monitors at North Braddock and Liberty Borough recorded elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide — a poisonous gas that is a byproduct of coal-burning facilities, such as Clairton Plant. Hydrogen sulfide has a “rotten-egg” odor that can be reminiscent of natural gas.

Malkowski declined to comment on the cause of the elevated hydrogen sulfide levels, but said that all of U.S. Steel’s pollution-control equipment is operating as designed, and in compliance with the terms of the company’s permits from the Allegheny County Health Department.

U.S. Steel has a vested interest in locating the source of the odor, Malkowski said.*

According to the federal Occupational Health & Safety Administration, hydrogen sulfide is also generated naturally by sewers, manure pits and volcanoes, and can be found in well water and underground mines.

Last week’s meeting that was convened by Macey included representatives from Pennsylvania One-Call; firefighters from Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills and West Mifflin; and state, county and borough officials.

Also included were representatives of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which is overseeing heavy construction in the West Mifflin area as part of the extension of the Mon-Fayette Expressway to Dravosburg and Duquesne.

Macey could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

However, in an email to stakeholders that was provided to Tube City Almanac, Macey wrote that nearly 40 people attended the meeting to discuss what he described as “persistent reports of strong gas-like odors in the South Hills and Mon Valley.”

“While initial investigations with the support of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission have ruled out certain sources, we are working diligently to determine what is behind this unexpected phenomenon,” Macey wrote.

“Citizens have made multiple reports to their fire departments, the gas companies and others, and we encourage all residents to remain vigilant and reach out to their fire departments, their elected leaders and the gas companies should they encounter this odor again,” he wrote.

Macey said “there is no immediate danger” but urged residents to “stay vigilant and help our first responders and others remain safe as we pinpoint the source.”

Abigail Gardner, Allegheny County director of communications, said the Allegheny County Health Department encourages residents to report odors and possible incidents of air pollution using its website, or by calling (412) 350-INFO (4636).

She confirmed that emergency management agencies are trying to locate the source of the odors, but said she could not speculate on whether they are linked to the high levels of hydrogen sulfide pollution measured last week in Liberty and North Braddock.

Asked specifically whether the hydrogen sulfide pollution itself was caused by U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works, Gardner declined comment.

“It is a disputed matter,” she said. “The health department has been studying it and they are in ongoing conversations with U.S. Steel.”

However, Gardner added, “that does not mean that (U.S. Steel) is the source of every rotten-egg smell.”

It’s possible, she said, that odors that people think are originating from Clairton or another industrial facility are coming from elsewhere, even from outside of the Pittsburgh area.

The largest component of natural gas is methane, which is odorless in its usual form. Odor-producing chemicals — usually mercaptan or tert-butylthiol — are added to natural gas by utility companies in order to make leaks easier to detect.

Peoples Gas workers have found no evidence of leaks at any of the company’s facilities, Paradise said. The company has been receiving calls on a steady basis, and responds to every report, he said.

“When we get a call, our equipment is designed to check for methane,” Paradise said. “That’s what all of our equipment is designed to track and identify. By and large, we’re not finding any.”

He encouraged residents who think they may have a gas leak not to hesitate, but to report it.

“We take every instance and every call very seriously,” Paradise said. “We continue to dispatch technicians to each and every call. We really encourage people to continue to call and notify us.”

Peoples Gas serves western Pennsylvania as well as parts of West Virginia and Kentucky.

Paradise said he has not heard of any reports of similar odors in other regions served by the company, and that the company is at a loss to speculate over whether some natural phenomenon might be responsible for the smell.

Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. Conflict of interest notice: The writer of this story is a U.S. Steel shareholder.

Originally published May 07, 2024.

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