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.
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