Shenango Coke Works in operation on Neville Island in 2015. Photo courtesy of Brian Cohen for The Heinz Endowments.

Before Shenango Coke Works closed in early 2016, plumes of soot bloomed into the Neville Island skyline. A distinct odor that locals could immediately recognize as the smell of the plant lingered in the Ohio River Valley.

“Even though people may have different ways of identifying smells, everybody knew what the coke plant smelled like,” says Karen Grzywinski, a co-founder and president of Allegheny County Clean Air Now.

When the plant closed, the physical and olfactory signs of its operation disappeared almost immediately, Grzywinski says.

The invisible outcomes were just as drastic, though.

A New York University Grossman School of Medicine study designed to assess the short- and longer-term health effects of the shutdown in the surrounding communities found a 61% decrease in local heart-related emergency department visits, a 13% decrease in hospitalizations for cardiovascular diseases and a 90% drop in average daily levels of sulfur dioxide within three years after the closure. The study was funded by The Heinz Endowments.

Immediately after the plant closed, ER visits for heart-related issues fell by 42%. George Thurston, the study’s lead scientist and NYU professor, says the results are gratifying.

Graph courtesy of New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

“In this case, it’s so clear because as soon as they shut it off, things changed,” Thurston says. 

Grzywinski and fellow Allegheny County Clean Air Now co-founder Angelo Taranto independently monitored the plant for a number of years, reporting violations as they saw them. When the plant closed, Allegheny County Clean Air Now pushed the Allegheny County Health Department to monitor and conduct studies in the area.

“Both the county health department and county executive felt that the drop in environmental pollution and health problems would be insignificant after the plant closed, but those of us who have lived around the plant felt otherwise,” Grzywinski says. 

The Allegheny County Health Department conducted a study on health issues stemming from fine particulate matter in 2018. Coverage of that study implied that the area’s negative health outcomes were a result of stress about the plant, Thurston says.

At the time, Environmental Health News reported that the county health department and LuAnn Brink, Allegheny County’s chief epidemiologist and the study’s lead researcher, were hesitant to attribute the 38% drop in asthma-related ER visits found in the study to the closing of the Shenango plant.

“There was a lot of stress in that area around this industrial facility operating, and stress itself can cause some of these outcomes,” Brink told Environmental Health News at the time.

While conducting the 2023 NYU study, Thurston and Ph.D. candidate Wuyue Yu analyzed psychological issue-related ER visits. That number remained flat.

“This [new study] is really vindication that we knew what we were experiencing in that area, and many times we felt like they weren’t giving us credit for knowing what’s going on with our own health, our own environment,” Grzywinski says.

The study on Shenango’s closing does not conclude a coking chapter for Pittsburgh. Instead, it brings into question the consequences of another, bigger plant: U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.

Clairton and its surrounding neighborhoods were used as a positive control site in the NYU study — researchers used data from the area to analyze the active effects of coke production on a community compared to Neville Island. Additionally, the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works plant was named Allegheny County’s worst polluter in the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center’s Toxic Ten report earlier this year. 

Map courtesy of PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center.

Clairton is about 10 times larger than Shenango, according to Matt Mehalik, executive director of Breathe Project, a community health and environmental advocacy group.

“If you look at the number of air emissions violations at the Clairton Coke Works, it’s some $11 million in violations going back to May of 2019 — that doesn’t even include the episode with the explosion and fire that took place in the first quarter of 2019,” Mehalik says. 

“It just shows you how negatively our region’s health is likely being impacted by a coking plant that has many of the same recorded violations but at a much larger scale.”

When Shenango was still in operation, Grzywinski and Taranto took courses for smoke reading certifications so they could accurately monitor violations. They would set up cameras and watch the emissions, taking readings every 15 seconds for an hour. If the smoke’s opacity obscured the background by 20% for at least three minutes in an hour, or if the emissions obscured the background by 60% for any length of time, it was considered a violation of the plant consent decree signed with the Environmental Protection Agency — a legally binding document that sets environmental standards for a specific plant.

Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab led the design and installation of the cameras and monitoring systems. Randy Sargent, a senior systems scientist at CMU, says the cameras often captured video of so-called “fugitive emissions” — unmonitored emissions that escape from plants through leaks or when the coking oven is opened to collect the cooked coal.

“Our smoke reading records couldn’t be used to issue violations on the plant because we weren’t working for the health department, but we did regularly inform the health department of what we were seeing throughout the years,” Grzywinski says.

Mehalik says that a deliberate, parallel campaign is being conducted at Clairton.

“We have our BreatheCams that are pointed at the Clairton Coke Works, as well as the interconnected plants at the Edgar Thomson Steel Works and Irvin Works, and we recorded dozens upon dozens of air pollution problems and leaks,” Mehalik says. BreatheCams are another CREATE Lab product. They constantly record plants and archive the recordings online.

“The most recent one was [Aug. 12] — in a thunderstorm, the Clairton Coke Works lost its power and the whole plant just started flaring … untreated coking gas directly into the Mon Valley.”

Clairton Coke Works bursts into flames after an early morning power outage on Aug. 12. Video courtesy of the Breathe Project.

Coking “squeezes everything out of coal” and sends it into the air, Thurston says. Coke plant emissions consist of sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter — the study lists sulfate and arsenic — and Thurston adds that transition metals like nickel and vanadium are also emitted.

Transition metals are vaporized when coal is being cooked, but once in the atmosphere, they resolidify as tiny particles that trap and weigh down sulfur dioxide and other harmful pollutants, allowing them to get deeper into a person’s body, Thurston adds. 

Exposure to pollution has left children in the city of Clairton with a 34% chance of developing asthma compared to the national rate of 8%, according to a 2020 Journal of Asthma study.

According to Thurston, exposing asthmatics to high levels of sulfur dioxide for 15 minutes greatly increases the chances of an asthma attack.

While sitting a quarter of a mile away from the Shenango plant to take readings for an hour, Grzywinki’s asthma would flair up. Grzywinki, Taranto and other Allegheny County Clean Air Now members gave up taking smoke readings before the plant even closed due to concerns about their own health.

Coke plants are not the only entity increasing the risk of asthma for children living in the Mon Valley. A recent University of Pittsburgh study found that severe asthma exacerbations and asthma-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations are strongly linked to fracking, an increasingly common energy source for the region.

“Our region is still heavily dependent on fossil fuel use for all its industrial activity and that correlates with health impacts and damage to the planet, too,” Mehalik says.

U.S. Steel is charged about $300,000 in fines every quarter for emissions violations, which they pay, according to Mehalik.

“Those plants are still highly profitable but that’s just because the fines aren’t large enough to force them to stop harming the health of our region’s residents,” Mehalik says.

U.S. Steel did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the implications of the NYU study. In reaction to the Toxic Ten report, the company cited data from its “2021 Mon Valley Works Clairton Plant Operations and Environmental Report” and said, “U.S. Steel values our shared environment, employees and the communities in which we operate. Safety and environmental performance remain our top priorities, now and into the future.”

Although Thurston’s Heinz Endowment grant has run its course, he has already applied for another — this time studying potential health outcomes if Clairton’s emissions were reduced.

His hypothesis is that, like in Shenango, reducing emissions will improve health outcomes. Still, since the plant is not turning off the switch like Shenango, he is remaining cognizant of extraneous factors.

“Let’s say … all new cars are going to be cleaner,” Thurston says. “What happens is most of the cars out there are the same cars this year as last year, and just a fraction of them are new ones. So you see a very slow progression and then it’s hard to document and to assign that improvement to the change in emissions in cars.”

Thurston is similarly concerned about slow changes that may come to the Clairton plant, especially if more severe control over emissions is enacted between now and the study’s completion.

Mehalik thinks that with the rising pressure and fines, the Mon Valley Works’ future may be in doubt. U.S. Steel broke ground on a $3 billion electric arc furnace steelmaking facility located in Osceola, Arkansas, in 2022.

U.S. Steel’s workforce, Mehalik continues, supports the company’s sale to Cleveland-Cliffs because Cleveland-Cliffs would most likely keep the Mon Valley Works operating longer than other potential buyers.

“That’s a scenario in which the workers may win in the medium term, but everyone else in Allegheny County pays with their health while this plant is extended in the medium term, but not for the long term,” Mehalik says.

Thurston hopes that through the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, many skilled workers will have the opportunity to transition from the steel industry to green energy industries. 

For Thurston, the ever-looming threat of fossil fuel emissions evokes the message of the 1972 report “Limits to Growth” by Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used a computer model to determine the consequences of humanity’s economic and environmental activity.

The inside of the cover reads “Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for?”

“I would say no right now,” Thurston says. “Unless we do something quick.”