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Air Advocate: Rotten-Egg Smell Has Likely Source

GASP executive director points to Clairton Plant as culprit

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
May 09, 2024
Posted in: State & Region

Editor’s note: The writer of this story has a conflict of interest. He is a U.S. Steel shareholder.

A local clean-air advocate argued Wednesday there is only one likely source of a rotten-egg smell that has plagued the Mon-Yough area for weeks — and it’s U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant.

Patrick Campbell, executive director of the Group Against Smog & Pollution, said that a 2023 study by the Allegheny County Health Department concluded that nearly all hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, pollution in the region is the result of operations at Clairton Plant, which makes coke, a blast-furnace fuel, by super-heating coal to remove impurities.

“We know the source of the stench,” he said in a phone interview. “Something is going on at Clairton Coke Works that’s resulting in these emissions.”

Last week, Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey convened a meeting of 40 first-responders, representatives from corporations, and local, county and state officials to discuss the ongoing odor. The smell — which seems to come and go — has resulted in countless calls to local fire departments by residents concerned that they have a natural gas leak.

Macey, who could not be reached for comment, said in an email obtained by Tube City Almanac that so far experts have been unable to “pinpoint the source” of the odors.

Hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas, is one of several chemicals that produce a odor described as “rotten eggs.” Others include sulfur dioxide, thioethers and mercaptans, which give natural gas its foul smell.

Last week, according to an H2S monitoring station in Liberty Borough, hydrogen sulfide levels exceeded Pennsylvania’s 5-part-per-billion standard on six consecutive days. On April 30, H2S levels averaged 25 ppb, or five times the approved limit.

The same monitor recorded high levels of H2S on April 15, April 16, April 18 and April 22-24.

Campbell acknowledged there are natural processes that can release hydrogen sulfide.

“Any time there is the breakdown of organic material it does release hydrogen sulfide — things like wastewater treatment plants, absolutely, release hydrogen sulfide,” Campbell said. “That could be an easy answer if it wasn’t for ACHD conducting a hydrogen sulfide study. Their own study says nearly all H2S emissions in the county can be attributed to Clairton Coke Works.”

A 2023 report by the Allegheny County Health Department identified possible sources of hydrogen sulfide and analyzed wind and weather patterns. (Image: Allegheny County Health Department)

That study, entitled “Analysis and Attribution of Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) Exceedances at the Liberty Monitoring Site from January 1, 2020 through March 1, 2022,” ruled out “fugitive emissions from wastewater treatment plants, landfills, or abandoned mines.”

The study, which analyzed prevaling wind and weather patterns, took into account waste-water treatment plants in Clairton, Dravosburg, McKeesport, West Mifflin and other nearby municipalities, as well as industrial plants and abandoned coal mines.

The authors wrote, “Based on all available data and resources, H2S exceedances that occurred at the Liberty site during the period of January 1, 2020 through March 1, 2022 can be attributed entirely to emissions originating at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant.”

Tube City Almanac reached out to three large universities to ask if alternative sources of H2S could be responsible for the odors. Two universities responded.

No experts agreed to be interviewed, but in an email, one said that the H2S data seemed to self-evidently point to a source for the rotten-egg smell.

“Business as usual,” that faculty member wrote, and suggested that residents should contact the state Department of Environmental Protection or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Maybe the state/federal folks can shake some action loose,” he wrote.

The other expert suggested speaking with Campbell’s group, GASP.

A U.S. Steel spokesperson on Tuesday told Tube City Almanac that all pollution control equipment at Clairton Plant is operating as designed and within the corporation’s permits from ACHD.

She said the corporation also is in compliance with the county’s Mon Valley Episode Rule that requires U.S. Steel and other industries to adjust their operations during weather events known as “air inversions” that can trap pollutants.

The spokesperson declined to speculate on why H2S levels are so high.

“That’s a great question,” Campbell said. “Those are our questions as well. And we’re asking (the health department) that. They’re the ones who have the authority to demand answers from U.S. Steel. That’s why we keep asking: What is going on at Clairton Coke Works that is driving these exceedances in the Mon Valley?”

Campbell said H2S is inherent to the process of making coke.

“It’s inevitable when you process coal at 2,000 degrees (Fahrenheit),” he said. “There are all sorts of emissions.”

Campbell said GASP is frustrated by what he called a lack of communication from the Health Department.

On Wednesday afternoon, during a regularly scheduled meeting of the Allegheny County Board of Health, Geoff Rabinowitz, deputy director of environmental health for the Allegheny County Health Department, told the board that ACHD is trying to “get ahead of misinformation that is being spread,” especially on the Internet.

That brought an angry retort from Campbell, who testified during the public comment session of the hearing.

“In 2024 so far, there have been 44 exceedances of Pennsylvania’s 24-hour standard for hydrogen sulfide,” Campbell testified. “Mr. Rabinowitz, that’s not misinformation — that’s pulled right from the (air quality) monitors.

“We know the source of the stench,” he said. “What is being done to stem the H2S violations? ... These are common sense questions from people who are tired of half-answers.”

ACHD, he told the board, has “failed at its public health messaging around these issues.”

Mon Valley residents, Campbell told the health board, “are sick of the stench and tired of the silence.”

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 09, 2024.

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