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The toxic reality of

Pittsburgh's air

By Andrew D. Otts

Pittsburgh has a dirty history of poor air quality and major pollution—and it’s not getting much better. The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report placed Pittsburgh in the top 10 cities where residents are at a higher risk of daily and long-term particulate pollution exposure. The report also found that the Pittsburgh area has worsened in both fine particulate pollution and ozone quality, making Allegheny County the only county in the United States outside of California to score a failing grade in all three categories. So why is the region’s air quality so poor? And what actions can be taken to make lasting change?


The first answer is simple: major polluters. The majority of air pollution in Allegheny County spawns from local industries, the worst of which have been dubbed the “Toxic Ten.” These companies have consistently violated the Clean Air Act, continue to emit harmful compounds and disregard the actions taken by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD). But the second answer isn’t as simple. There are a number of advocacy groups that have been battling these companies for years—but without the full support of the local and state government, the ACHD and local organizations are fighting an uphill battle. 


“They have the authority to take more action,” Dr. Matt Mehalik, Executive Director of the Breathe Collaboration—a network of local advocacy groups whose mission is to improve air quality and combat major polluters in the region, said. “They need to have the backing of the full regional institutional government, particularly Allegheny County…in order to do their job.” 


According to Dr. Mehalik, the ACHD needs “a budget that helps them retain quality people, that helps them hire more enforcement personnel, that helps them have enough personnel to review permits” as well as a “robust legal staff to hold [major polluters] to account and not just issue slap-of-the-wrist fines.”


Although the Clean Air Act has helped regulate emissions from major polluters—with studies showing an improvement in air quality throughout the country—there are a handful of regions that continue to provide poor results, with Pittsburgh being one of them. 


The top polluters in Allegheny County emit hazardous compounds and particulate matter that have been linked to respiratory, nervous system and cardiovascular problems. Many of these compounds can also lead to cancer, which is exactly what the 2013 Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threat Analysis (PRETA) report discovered. The study, conducted by the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), found that coke oven emissions and compounds such as Chromium and Arsenic put tens of thousands of residents throughout Allegheny County at a higher risk of cancer. 

One such compound is Black Carbon (BC), a black or grey soot that is emitted from industrial facilities and diesel-powered vehicles and has been linked to reduced lung function, lung cancer, asthma attacks and heart attacks. The map (below), created by the Breathe Project, shows Black Carbon levels throughout Allegheny County, highlighting the high levels of Black Carbon situated around the rivers and major roads in Allegheny County—with extremely high levels around industrial facilities, many of which are part of the Toxic Ten.


















“A few industries disproportionately contribute to our air problems,” Dr. Mehalik said. “If they can clean up their act, then we certainly will be in a much better place.” 


So, who are the industries that are contributing to our air pollution? How many residents do they put at risk? And what kind of pollution are they emitting? 


“70% of the industrial pollution that is produced in Allegheny County comes from just ten sources…collectively they are responsible for about a million pounds of harmful air pollution every year,” Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate for PennEnvironment—an environmental advocacy group that focuses on cleaning up pollution throughout Pennsylvania, said. 


These 10 industries are all located within Allegheny County and situated near tens of thousands of residents. They emit dangerous chemicals and compounds into residential communities, with little regulation or oversight. And when fines are imposed on one of these industries, they tend to be underwhelming and even go unpaid. 


“There will be a violation, and often it will take a lot of violations or a lot of community pressure for the [ACHD] to step in and issue the fine in the first place,” Barber said. “Often times, polluters are able to go through the court system…and hold [the fine] up for years and years.”


When the departments’ in charge of regulating these industries and their emissions fail to hold them accountable, what can be done? Barber believes that a network of motivated advocates may be the answer—by creating “a county-wide, people-powered movement for clean air.”

Barber suggests downloading the Smell Pittsburgh App—an app designed to monitor air quality around Pittsburgh and submit complaints directly to the ACHD—or to reach out to the ACHD and elected officials directly.

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Fighting for healthy air quality

By Nardos Haile

At its height of industry, Pittsburgh’s steel and coal production from the late 1700s to 1880s, degraded the city’s land, water and air. According to the National Center for Biotechnology, more money has been made from Pittsburgh’s coal than any other mineral in the history of the world.

The coal and steel industry produced a thriving economy, but it also produced heavy smoke-like pollution that darkened the sky during the daytime. Not only was the pollution detrimental to the air quality and the people, but the growth of vegetation.


It wasn’t until 1940 that Pittsburgh passed the most restrictive smoke control ordinance in the nation. Finally, in the 1970s, the National Environmental Policy Act passed, which nationalized pollution control in air and water.


The end of the 20th century enacted laws ensuring environmental protections. But these laws couldn’t fix the generational damage done and the current damage local steel and coal companies continue to inflict on Pittsburgh’s environment and most of all, its air quality.  

Pittsburgh’s air pollution issues have been prevalent since as early as the Industrial Revolution. The Steel City’s pollution lingers on Allegheny County to this day and will continue to have ripple like effects in its future. 


Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) founded in 2014, formed to support the local communities and residents affected by the DTE Energy's Shenango Coke Plant on Neville Island, which shutdown in 2016. 


Karen Grzywinski, a former Ben Avon resident and ACCAN member, was forced to move her family and herself a few miles up north from the plant. The polluted air from the Shenango Plant became too unbearable. 


“When Shenango was operating there were times where it was awful,” Grzywinski said. “Especially at this time of year, when the weather’s real cool at night and heats up [during the day]. You get the air inversions. You can’t believe how many complaints I made after we lived there.” 


Environmental group PennEnvironment named Shenango Coke Works one out of two biggest polluters in the Pittsburgh area, followed by U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.


“If you look at Shenango on an aerial map, if you look at Neville Island, you’ll see a black spot like tar and that’s Shenango when it was operating and now,” Grzywinski said.

After the plant’s closing, an Allegheny County Health Department study showed a decrease in emergency room visits for asthma and respiratory issues, and cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes. 

“I have asthma and nobody else in my entire family has it,” Grzywinski said about the health effects she faces from exposure from the Shenango Plant. “I have three brothers and two sisters we have no family history of asthma. I didn’t have it until I was 40-years-old.”

An American Lung Association report showed that particle pollution worsened in the Pittsburgh Metro Area in 2019. The report gave Pittsburgh a failing letter grade for its air quality.

Particle pollution is soot or any tiny particles that comes from coal/steel plants, gas emissions and industrial sources. The American Lung Association says these particles are so small they can embed themselves deep in the lungs and cause irritation that can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes.

“In the process of shredding [metals and plastic] they generate air pollution,” ACCAN member Angelo Taranto said of how air pollution starts at these plants. “Where you see that steam and emissions coming out, that’s from the shredder. Initially there’s a whiter plume, that’s mostly steam but then above that kind of trailing off, you can see what are actually air emissions and pollution mostly particulate matter which is damaging to health.”


Local Pittsburgh authorities and regulators struggle to protect their constituents from the effects of air pollution because the county lacks the resources to put checks on the local chemical, coal and steel plants.  


“The Health Department has two inspectors per county because they are underfunded,” co-founder of ACCAN Thaddeus Popovich said. “And we’ve complained about it at the board of health meetings. They say we don’t have enough resources to do what we’re supposed to be doing.”

“And for them to cite air pollution, they have to see it,” Grzywinski added. “They can’t go on our reports or our cameras, but it provides a foundation. But unless a Health Department inspector see it, it can’t be cited.”

This is where another local nonprofit citizen collective, Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), parallels ACAAN in their advocacy work. 

GASP, founded in 1969, is an environment group which has been a watchdog, educator, litigator and policymaker in Southwestern Pennsylvania for 50 years. 

“It’s very important that we hold polluters and regulators accountable,” GASP’s Executive Director Rachel Filippini said, speaking about GASP’s main priorities of education and legal advocacy. “One way we can do that is making sure we are aware of the permits, the regulations and the plans that are out there around air quality.” 

GASP has two attorneys on staff, and according to Filippini, they spent most of their time reviewing permits and working on draft regulations. They are also trying to involve themselves more into the policymaking aspect of environmental law. 

“We don’t want to always be responding to things that are thrown at us,” Filippini said. “We want to be a part of the decisions from the beginning.”

Currently, the group has been working on commenting and appealing permits on Eastman Chemical because there are “significant problems that we want to see addressed,” according to Filippini.

Eastman Chemical Resins Inc., located a few miles upstream the Monongahela River, exceeded the legal boundaries for pollution limits. According to the EPA’s review, records show Eastman Chemical is dumping heavy metals like zinc and other chemicals like xylene and styrene into the river.

GASP appealed an installation permit issued by the Allegheny County Health Department for Eastman Chemical’s Water White Poly Process Unit. According to GASP’s website, the permit “does not include applicable requirements imposed by the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing.”

When companies take out installation permits, they are open for public comment. Which is when GASP attorneys comment on permits so they can appeal them.

“Sometimes the comments that we make is to say different and better controls should be used that would actually reduce the amount of pollution that a certain facility is permitted to put out into the air,” Filippini said. “We sometimes get what we ask for. That means from the get-go we are actually helping to encourage permits. That means less pollution is going to be permitted from the very beginning rather than always fighting pollution that’s already happened.”

Another issue the GASP legal team is currently working on is suing Allegheny County for misusing the Clean Air fund.

As stated on Allegheny County’s website, “The Clean Air Fund is a restricted fund where penalties from polluters emissions violations are deposited.” The fund allows the Health Department to annually spend more than a million dollars on projects geared towards improving Pittsburgh’s air quality.

“This is a pot of money collected from fines that companies in Allegheny County that have violated their air quality permits or laws have to pay into this fund,” Filippini said. “Unfortunately, we think there have been attempts made to use the funds in a way that’s not helpful and legal.”


Environmental Health News reported that the Clean Air fund make up of $11.8 million and the county wants to use $9 million of it to renovate a county-owned building.


The lawsuit is ongoing at the time of publication, and a judge recently ruled in GASP and Clean Air Now’s favor by overruling the county’s preliminary objects complaint. 


Ultimately, GASP continues to advocate for a health environment even if that means legal battles in court with Pittsburgh’s local government. 


“[It’s important to] have our local officials communicate that we can have a healthy economy and a healthy environment,” Filippini said. “Those things are not mutually exclusive.” 

Community organizations provide tools for clean air

By Miriah Auth

There is an invisible threat to public health in Pittsburgh. Allegheny County has been given failing grades in all three categories of the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” findings. 


“We are one of the very few regions in the country that are still not in attainment for the annual average particle standard,” Matthew Mehalik, Executive director of the Breathe Project said. “Everyone in this region suffers from bad air quality.”


While the air is bad throughout the region, it’s worse in areas that are exposed to high levels of pollution. 


“There are a few places, particularly in the Mon Valley where it’s even worse,” Mehalik said. “There, the air quality is about the 3rd percentile nationally that means about 97% of the entire country has better air quality than folks in close proximity to the Clairton Coke Works, the Edgar Thompson Steel Works and the Urban Works in the mon valley.” 


There is a lack of accountability within these polluting facilities that has led to bad air quality. 




“Every single permit says that pollution and malodors are not to leave the facility site, every single permit in Allegheny county,” Karen Grzywinski said. 


Grzywinski is affiliated with Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), founded in 2014 to give a voice to the residents living downwind of Shenango Coke Plant. 


Grzywinski was living in Ben Avon while the Shenango Coke Plant was still in operation. After living in close proximity to a plant that produced such high levels of pollution, she now has late onset asthma, although causation cannot be medically proven.  


“I have asthma, nobody else in my entire family has it,” Grzywinski said. “I did not have it until I was 40 years old living here.”


According to the American Lung Association, she is not alone. In 2019, the “State of the Air” report shows that “more than 2.5 million children and more than 9.7 million adults with asthma live in counties of the United States that received and F [rating] for at least one pollutant. More than 306,000 children and more than 1.2 million adults with asthma live in counties failing all three tests.”


Living in areas with high air pollution can worsen asthma according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. 


“People with asthma are at greater risk from breathing in small particles. The particles can make asthma worse. Both long-term and short-term exposure can cause health problems such as reduced lung function and more asthma attacks.”


“About 25 of these particles will fit across the width of a human hair,” Mehalik said, describing the particles as being 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller. “The particles will go deep into the lungs and they actually pass directly into your bloodstream and they can accumulate in tissue.” 


Exposure to particulate matter can have severe life-threatening health risks. 


“The particles will go deep into the lungs and pass directly into your bloodstream and then they can accumulate in tissue,” Mehalik said. “As a result, Allegheny County is in the top 2% of counties nationally for cancer risk and it’s because of this sort of thing that we have disproportionately high rates of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and things like bladder cancer.”


While residents are breathing in pollution from across rivers or particles that have traveled for miles, the people working in these factories are exposed to it up close. 


“When the sun would rise and it came through the window you could just see the air was green and I was like, ‘Man, I love breathing that in,’” Patrick Arthurs, formerly employed at AK Steel in Beaver County said. “Just seeing that, it’s not natural.”


Arthurs is a father of two who started working at AK Steel because it was simply the best paying job around. 


“They gave healthcare for the whole family, for my kids,” Arthurs said. “At that point I [didn’t] really care about [myself] so much as getting them the right health insurance.”


This healthcare did, however, come at a price. 


“I would do 16 hours, come home go asleep and go back to work for 16 hours,” Arthurs said. “After 3 times you do 16 hours, they can't force you again, but I would do the overtime because I have kids and I need the money.” 


In addition to long hours, Arthurs like many workers in similar plants, was routinely exposed to a major source of air pollution, silica. 


“I would go home after scrubbing off all the powder they put on the carlite machine and I would blow my nose and it would bleed,” Arthurs said. “I hated that job, but it paid the most for a reason.”


Silica is used to keep the cracks in the earth open during the fracking process and just as it gets lodged in these cracks, it gets lodged in peoples’ lungs. 


Earthworks is an organization designed to protect clean air and hold corporations accountable. Their site notes that “frac sand mining creates significant air pollution from the handling, mining and processing of the sand.”


While Arthurs was breathing this hazardous silica in at work, others are breathing it in from their backyard.


Grzywinski was living in Ben Avon while the Shenango plant was in operation and her solution to avoid the pollution was to move, but airborne pollution affects the entire region.


“Where we moved directly north two miles up high on a hill when Shenango was operating, there were times when it was still a problem,” Grzywinski said. “Especially at this time of year when the weather is really cold at night and then it heats up you get the air inversions you can't believe how many complaints I made after we moved there.” 


Grzywinski is one of many Allegheny County locals who has gotten involved with citizen-run organizations designed to protect individuals living in areas of high pollution. These organizations work with community members to raise awareness about the causes and effects of air pollution and to hold polluting corporate plants accountable for their actions. 


The Breathe Project is one such organization designed to give people the tools necessary to take the fight for clean air into their own hands. 


“On our website, we have something called a ‘Breathe Meter’ that ranks Pittsburgh regions air compared with all the other cities around the country,” Mehalik said. “We have monitors all over and we have ten particulate matter monitors around Allegheny County.”


The organization worked in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab to develop Breathe Cams that capture the release of pollutants.

“The site allows you to take a clip of that video and you can directly upload it to Twitter or Facebook or an email to let people know you saw some emissions at this plant and to tell the health department to pay attention to it so that will stop,” Mehalik said.


The Shenango plant is closed now, but a plethora of polluting plants and facilities exist that release particulate matter on a daily basis. On Neville Island, a slew of plants pump out toxins that then drift over into Ben Avon. 





Shots of Neville Island from across the Ohio River. 


“We were all here, everybody left sick,” Grzywinski said. “Even someone from GASP, who had never been here before said that she wasn’t feeling well at all after being here. Someone else got sick he had to leave and we all either had headaches or something for the rest of the day it was really profound.” 


Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), has a map of major air polluting facilities and their permits on their Air Permits Clearinghouse page. 


“Title V of the Clean Air Act requires ‘Major Sources’ of air pollution to obtain operating permits from the EPA or a state or local agency that EPA has authorized to issue these permits.”


This tool is designed to put the fight against toxic air back into the hands of the people by providing information. The companies responsible for this pollution are simply not being held accountable for their actions.


“Each company has a permit that specifies limits of what it can do and for years that enforcement wasn't happening,” Mehalik said. “Now what's happening is they will issue fines, but the fines are so small compared to what a major polluter’s revenues look like, they pay it as the cost of doing business rather than investing in their plant.”


When Arthurs was working at AK Steel, he recalls a visit from the EPA. 


“Mills like that, they’re almost on the borderline of what they can get away with because they have the money for it,” Arthurs said. “The more money the company has the more they can get away with the pollution.”


Residents of these communities are left to cope with living in areas of poor air quality. 


“There is a group that we’re working with called Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces (ROCIS),” Grzywinski said. “They actually come and do an evaluation in your home and they’re able to do things like retrofitting your furnace, providing you with air cleaners to help you keep it out of your house not that that’s an answer for when you want to use your yard.”


Smell Pittsburgh is an app that was designed with the Allegheny County Health Department to send complaints directly to the health department when the air quality is bad in an attempt to help monitor air pollution sources. 











Screenshot of Smell Pittsburgh app over the Pittsburgh area

Smell Pittsburgh helps residents alert each other and the health department when their air changes in smell, indicating pollution.

While this app was designed to air complaints, the Health Department has not been properly allocating resources towards the communities that are complaining. 


“There are groups that repeatedly approach the Allegheny Health Department and its clean air fund to try to tap into that fund,” Mehalik said. “That fund is what polluters are forced to pay into when they are found to be violating the law and that money is supposed to be going to helping communities.”


Since the communities aren’t getting help directly from the Health Department, ROCIS has designed a DIY air filter that can be assembled at home for around $50.


Arthurs does note that AK Steel gave workers masks to help cut down on the contaminants inhaled.


“They provided masks for you, but the EPA said it was at a level where you didn’t really have to wear one, and who’s going to wear extra [protection] if they don’t have to?” Arthurs said. 


With a lack of accountability at a corporate level, these facilities will continue to pollute and endanger the lives of their workers and everyone around them, but there are still some things communities can do to raise awareness and become involved in the fight for clean air. 
















“People like to believe that regulators and [the] government are solving problems for them but what we’re finding is that without citizens coming together expressing their voice and using tools to make sure that the people that are responsible for enforcement and regulation are doing their job and are well informed, unless that happens we’re seeing a sort of slacking off,” Mehalik said. 

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The air we breathe

By Tiara Strong

Imagine waking up with a dry throat in the middle of the night. Or being stricken with a shortness of breath from a cough you cannot get rid of. All of a sudden all of those symptoms begin to irritate your lungs, leading to an asthma attack. All of this is due to particulate matter put into the air that made its way to your lungs. For some residents of the Pittsburgh area this is not a dream it is a harsh reality.

Despite efforts to improve Pittsburgh’s air quality, there is still a long way to go. Even though the Clean Air Act was signed in 1990, some Pittsburgh corporations still continues to put out air emissions that are barely passing the state air regulations year after year. Ultimately, the resident in the Pittsburgh region and surrounding areas pay the price. Due to this, many organizations have gotten involved with Pittsburgh’s fight for better air quality.

American Lung Association released the “State of the Air” report in 2019, where Pittsburgh received a grade “F.” Pittsburgh is also ranked one of the top ten most polluted cities in the United States of America. The report rates air quality based on a combination of ozone and particle pollution. According to the “State of the Air” report people who are constantly at risk in the Pittsburgh region are people with asthma, COPD, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

“Awareness is half the battle,” said Kevin Stewart who is the Director of Public Health for Advocacy and Public Policy at American Lung Association. “The Pittsburgh area has a problem with ozone smog. This pollution occurs in the atmosphere where sunlight is present. Think of ozone smog as giving your lungs sunburn,” said Mr. Stewart.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tracks the chemicals released into the air from different plants.

Pittsburgh’s 2018 Quarterly report has a list of the top ten polluters in the Pittsburgh region. The information is inclusive of the what is emitted into the atmosphere, the owner and location. Among the top ten polluters are U.S. Steel in Clairton and Calgon Carbon Corporation on Neville Island. Shenango Coke Works Plant, which was closed permanently in January of 2016, would have also made that list. 

When deciding on where to live in Pittsburgh, the air quality is a major factor, as the air quality will have a long -lasting impact on your health ultimately. A former Ben Avon resident, Karen Grzywinski, moved to that area in 1986 to what she thought was a very promising neighborhood due to the location being close to downtown and the diversity. After 18 years in that neighborhood she moved out, taking asthma with her.

“I developed asthma at 40 in my later years. Shenango was the most sickening to be around,” Karen said. 

People who live within a certain radius of Neville Island, have experienced the most health risks. There is not much residents can do to address this issue due to there being a lack of resources. There are major health concerns in the Ben Avon area. There are also spikes of health problems in students in the North Boroughs neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. The “Top Ten” are suspected to play a role in that.

Numerous deaths have been reported in the year of 2017 that have been linked to air pollution according to the Pittsburgh City Paper. This was the second most deaths for any region behind California. When it comes to the standard procedures for these industrial companies that are emitting toxins, there are guidelines they must follow.

There are fines based on the type of plant the company is and what the violation is. If residents grow concerned they can go to the Allegheny County Health Department website, where they can file a complaint online. They may choose to file a complaint over the phone.

“Information that is not on the website cannot be answered. You would have to submit a “Right to Know,” which could take a while,” said Ryan Scarpino, a Public Health Information Officer for Allegheny County Health Department.

Having clean air is a civil right. Pittsburgh residents suffer drastically due to the amount of toxins released into the air every day from factories and industrial companies. Some Pittsburgh residents are developing cancer and other lung diseases in their later years after living within a short radius of the “Top Ten” and surrounding areas. Children in certain Pittsburgh neighborhoods are developing asthma at higher rates than children in areas without the constant air pollution. Clean air is something that should be seen as a necessity and not a privilege!


Photos by Tiara Strong

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