Breathe Cam - Edgar Thomson Works. Image from 2018.

“People who talk about our air like to set a very low bar,” said Breathe Project Executive Director Matt Mehalik at a press conference at Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday. “They like to say, ‘What was the air like 30 years ago? Look how far we’ve come.’”

But the facts are more disturbing, he says: “Our air is not getting better, despite what people are saying.”

Mehalik rolls out slide after slide of evidence to support his claim — data that puts Allegheny County in the top 1 percent of counties nationwide for cancer risk, and shows three straight years of straight “F” grades from The American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air Report.”

So what can be done?

This week CMU’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE) announced the expansion of the Breathe Cam Network to include 24-hour monitoring of three key locations in U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works: the Clairton Plant coke works, Braddock’s Edgar Thomson Plant and West Mifflin’s Irvin Plant.

“We respond to what the community tells us,” says Breathe Cam director Randy Sargent. “The community is telling us, especially around Edgar Thomson and Clairton, that there are problems.”

In 2017, the EPA and Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) issued the Edgar Thomson plant a notice of violation for exceeding visible emissions limits, and in 2016 the Clairton coke works entered into a consent judgment with the ACHD due to emissions violations.

A media representative with US Steel did not respond to requests for comment.

This new Breathe Cam expansion includes nine new cameras at five separate locations that will allow residents to track emissions coming from the Mon Valley Works in near real time. Emissions can then be traced to a particular moment in time, which CREATE can compare with data from nearby air monitoring stations and other sources.

Breathe Cam director and CREATE Lab senior scientist, Randy Sargent, speaks at a press conference 6/5/18. Brian Conway photo.

CREATE Lab’s mission is to use technology to pursue socially meaningful innovation, especially to empower citizens with the tools they need to document environmental threats.

Sargent said the Breathe Cam Network, in operation since 2014, is being expanded to the Mon Valley largely due to complaints made through CREATE’s Smell PGH app, which allows residents to report and monitor bad odors citywide.

Clairton resident, Melanie Meade, said that the expanded network “gives me the right to have a voice, and to have a say.” Before the cameras, she says, she could tell people about witnessing late-night emissions from the nearby coke works, but they would shrug it off. Now, with a searchable archive and a way to export video clips, Meade feels empowered and validated.

The Breathe Project already has cameras pointed toward Downtown and the North Shore. A previous camera aimed at the Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island was shut down after the plant was shuttered in 2016.

Filmmaker and activist Mark Dixon said at the press conference that the camera network has shifted the narrative between the public and the powerful. No longer will industry and politicians be able to feign ignorance at the problem, he believes, and quite possibly it will compel them or regulators to take action.

“Why do we need to have cameras pointed at these facilities?” asked Mehalik at the beginning of his presentation. “Because the people who should be watching are not seeing the things that should be seen, and actions are not being taken.”

See live video at the Breathe Project website. Residents interested in learning more about the Breathe Cam network can attend a public meeting June 21, 6pm at the Braddock Library or June 28, 6pm at a location TBD in Clairton.  

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.