Clairton Coke Works. Photo courtesy of Breathe Project. Photo by Mark Dixon / Blue Lens.

More work to be done

Just this week, air quality watchdogs stressed that recent pollution improvements in Pittsburgh do not go far enough.

“The Liberty monitor is still in the worst 10% of monitors in the country — we also have another three in the worst 20%: that would be Braddock, Lawrenceville and the Parkway East,” says Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project.  “90% of our point source cancer risk in the county comes from [coke oven emissions and 90 percent of those emissions] are the Clairton Coke Works. We know our health problems come from that source.

“Our air has been getting cleaner — but not nearly as dramatically as other areas of the country,” Mehalik says.

“It absolutely holds true to trends we see in Pittsburgh,” adds Patrick Campbell, executive director of the Regent Square-based Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). “Residents have been speaking out for decades [and] for those residents, this is nothing new to them. They know what’s going on.”

“We’re not messaging that we should close down these facilities,” Mehalik says. “But these facilities are old and the region deserves much better pollution control.”

U.S. Steel, which operates the Clairton Coke Works, defends the operation by stressing it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Mon Valley Works facilities over the past few years.

“We saw record-setting environmental performance at the Clairton plant in 2020, which we maintained in 2021,” U.S. Steel spokesperson Amanda Malkowski tells NEXTpittsburgh. “We also previously announced our intent to permanently idle Clairton batteries 1 to 3, which is expected to reduce PM2.5 and fugitive emissions from the Clairton plant. Environmental performance is a top priority, and we value the communities where we live and work.”

Malkowski declined to comment on the Biden Administration’s possible plans to drop the PM2.5 regulations below the current 12-microgram threshold. 

The Allegheny County Health Department was more transparent on its stance.

 “We support any regulation that protects the public,” Allegheny County Health Department Public Information Officer Chris Togneri says. “At the health department, we support science-based approaches to reducing PM2.5. We will continue to work with sources within our jurisdiction and other regulatory agencies to reach any standard set by the EPA.”

Research illustrates the dangers

There are other studies whose scientists are working to present data for the EPA’s consideration about the PM2.5 limits. A new Health Effects Institute study published on Jan. 26 examined potential health risks from low levels of air pollution in millions of older Americans, and found risks of mortality, including at PM2.5 levels below current EPA air quality standards.

In the study, Assessing Adverse Health Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Low Levels of Ambient Pollution: Implementation of Causal Inference Methods, researchers looked at PM2.5, ozone and nitrogen dioxide levels from 2000 to 2016 to estimate exposure for all 68.5 million Americans in the study, all of whom are Medicare recipients. The team reported older Americans are 6% to 8% more likely to die for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 exposure. 

“This study is the result of a multi-year effort by an incredibly talented team of graduate students and postdocs,” says Dominici, who was also involved in the Harvard study on racial disparities. “Importantly, results of this study will be able to inform the EPA as to whether or not they should lower the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM2.5 in the United States.”

“This is a powerful study,” says Gentile, the allergist and immunologist working in Clairton. “They have data for almost 70 million older Americans; their low levels of PM2.5 are below the current [EPA] limit and they’re still showing adverse health effects.”

“It’s really a testament,” she adds, “for the need to lower the PM2.5 numbers.”

How low can we go?

John Graham, a senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force in Boston, has been studying air pollution for decades. One area of focus has been pollution and air in Western Pennsylvania.

Graham says, for a long time, agencies like the EPA couldn’t guess what low levels of PM2.5 did to public health because there were no areas of the U.S. where levels were low enough to test. That’s not the case anymore, he says.

“To me, this is the best evidence that the Clean Air Act works,” Graham says. “Initially, we couldn’t determine if there was a level below which PM2.5 wasn’t harmful. Ten years ago, they got enough info to say, ‘There’s harm virtually all the way down.’ It’s expanded [our concepts of] the amount of harm that this is doing.”

Time is not kind to the EPA. Graham says when the agency is evaluating research, it’s often “10 years behind the science.”

“When we’re setting a standard now, in 2022 — you can see this in the HEI [Health Effects Institute] study — the data is older than 2016,” Graham says. “That’s my one criticism of the process. It’s not that it’s not rigorous. It’s just late.”

A third study may also influence the decision to potentially lower those standards. According to another Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study, elderly people who live near or downwind of unconventional oil and gas development — such as fracking — are at a greater risk of premature death than those who don’t live near those operations. The results suggest that airborne contaminants emitted by so-called unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD) and transported downwind are contributing to increased mortality, the researchers wrote. 

The study was published on Jan. 27 in the journal Nature Energy.

“Although UOGD is a major industrial activity in the U.S., very little is known about its public health impacts. Our study is the first to link mortality to UOGD-related air pollutant exposures,” says Petros Koutrakis, professor of environmental sciences at Harvard and senior author of the study. 

“Major industrial activity” once defined the Steel City. In terms of pollution, how different is it today? Gentile says views of Pittsburgh being behind the times when it comes to cleaning its air are accurate.

“We’re one of the worst cities in the country for air pollution,” she says. “Our city isn’t cleaning up the pollution problem as fast as other cities. We’re lagging behind.”

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music magazines PopMatters and Spectrum Culture. He has been contributing to NEXTpittsburgh since January 2020. He lives in Greenfield.