A Change in the Air After the Closure of the Shenango Coke Plant

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Spring 2016 is proving to be unlike any previous spring for residents of communities surrounding Neville Island. Since the DTE Energy Shenango Coke Plant ended production in January, pollution from the battery no longer intrudes in their lives. Daily routines, as ordinary as opening windows to let in an evening breeze, are joyful events for many residents.

Gretchen Anderson and her husband, Clint Hoover, moved to Avalon five years ago from Minneapolis. They were not aware that their home was located at what they later titled “ground zero” for pollution from Shenango. Gretchen had given up sleeping with the windows open because pollution infiltrated their home. “Now I do. I had forgotten how fun it is to wake up to the birds singing! I can open the windows and air out the house. We’re looking forward to using our porch and yard this year, instead of staying inside to avoid the stench.” The return of these simple routines emphasizes how miserable life was for those living closest to the plant.

The Shenango coke battery operated for 54 years. At the time of the shutdown, there were 70,000 people living within a three mile radius of the plant. Despite entering into consent orders and agreements with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the plant regularly exceeded allowable pollution limits, and fouled communities with particulates, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds, including benzene.

A grassroots environmental group, Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), focused on holding Shenango accountable for violations and pollution, was established in 2014. Through the Smoke Readers Program administered by GASP, ACCAN connected with Carnegie Mellon University CREATE (Community Robotics Education and Technology Empowerment) Lab, which designed a system to monitor the plant. With a camera set up in the attic of an Avalon home, the coke plant was photographed every five seconds around the clock. Using these photos to produce a continuous video, the CREATE Lab developed the Shenango Channel at shenangochannel.org, an interactive site that has documented plant emissions since January 2015.

During the summer of 2015, Shenango lost power at least four times, disabling all pollution controls, and creating particularly egregious pollution episodes in the area. EPA and ACHD began discussions to reopen their 2012 Consent Agreement with the plant. On November 19, 2015, video from the Shenango Channel was presented at a community meeting organized by ACCAN, and attended by ACHD and EPA representatives. In his comments, EPA Region 3 Deputy Director David Arnold stated that what he saw in the video was “totally unacceptable.”

Following the meeting, DTE Energy defended its operation of Shenango and renewed its commitment to bring the plant into compliance. Less than a month later, DTE Energy announced plans to shut down the Shenango coke battery, blaming a downturn in the U.S. steel industry and a reduced demand for coke. The unfortunate consequence of the sudden closure was the loss of jobs for 173 employees.

Since Shenango shut down, the improvement in air quality can be confirmed. Air quality complaints registered with ACHD are down significantly compared to last year. For the first quarter of 2015, ACHD received 109 complaints from the 15202 area, which includes Avalon, Bellevue, and Ben Avon, the communities downwind of the Shenango plant. Individuals filing those complaints identified Shenango as the source of pollution in 99 of the 109 reports. During the first quarter of 2016, ACHD received only 13 complaints from the 15202 area, an 88% reduction.

Another measure of improvement can be seen on the Shenango Channel, which now records a haze-free site. There are no more grey, black, and tan emissions billowing from the plant.

One of the ways Dawn Winters knows that the air quality has improved at her Bellevue home is through the lower readings of the Speck particle monitors on her front porch. The monitors, also developed by the CREATE Lab, have shown a trend downward in particulate counts since Shenango closed. But statistics and monitors have never accurately described the effects of chronic pollution residents suffered due to the Shenango operation. Since moving to Bellevue in 2014, Dawn said “Shenango’s pollution had a noticeable impact on my quality of life and my overall opinion of Pittsburgh.” As a parent of a newborn, “I worried constantly for my family’s health.” Now, there is a “noticeable improvement” in the air quality. Before the plant closed, Dawn had been hoping to move to a less polluted area. Now, she has no immediate desire to leave Bellevue.

Debbie Blackburn and her family have lived in Ben Avon, across the river from the Shenango battery, for more than 19 years. They had made plans to move this spring because they could no longer cope with the constant pollution. When the family learned of the plant closure, they decided to stay and are enjoying a “Shenango-free spring.” Debbie says that the air is refreshing and “the wind… feels clean against your skin, not gritty and heavy. Sounds crazy, but it’s true!” Her son, Elliot, believes that the difference is “unquestionable, and everyone is happier, including the animals and plants.”

The last batch of coke was pushed in the early evening of January 6, ahead of the shutdown schedule DTE had announced. The ovens were turned off and, as they lost heat, immediately began to deteriorate. They cannot be used again. ACHD has confirmed that, with current regulations, another coke battery would not be permitted in such a populated area. Late in the evening, after the shutdown, Leah Andrascik and her family were driving back to their Avalon home from a trip out of town. They live around the corner from the ACHD Avalon monitoring station, downwind of the Shenango battery. Leah recalls that “as soon as we turned onto Ohio River Boulevard, I knew something was different. I told my husband that the coke ovens must be off already.”

ACHD plans to continue air monitoring in the community for a year after the Shenango closure. Additionally, a group made up of health professionals, academics, and environmental organizations, including GASP, was formed to assess health standards in the communities, before and after the Shenango shutdown. The closure of the site is being managed by DEP for water, storage tanks, and waste matters, and ACHD for air quality issues.

The morning after that last coke oven was pushed, Leah received an email confirming the Shenango shutdown. “It was like a huge weight had been lifted. We can leave windows open overnight without waking to nauseating odors or headaches. Our boys play outside and I don’t have to cut their play time short because of odors in the neighborhood. We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to stay in the home and community we now can love.”

Written by Karen Grzywinski, GASP Board Member, for the 2016 Spring Hotline

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