© 2022 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh Struggles For Clean Air As Nearby Town's Pollution Worsens


Since the passage of the Clean Air Act, air quality throughout the country has steadily gotten better but not everywhere. In one community near Pittsburgh, air pollution has actually been getting worse. Read Frazier of The Allegheny Front explains why.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: From her front porch, Collette Williams points out the lights from U.S. Steel's big plant a half-mile away.

COLLETTE WILLIAMS: So if you stand, like, on that over here or, like, if you look right in between that building right there, you can see the mill right there.

FRAZIER: The mill is U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works. The region's steel industry is a shell of what it once was. But the Clairton Works, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, remains North America's largest producer of coke, a key component of steelmaking. It's basically pure carbon made from baking coal at high temperatures. The process can create a lot of pollution.

WILLIAMS: That's, like, a white smoke. And then over there is, like, a dark smoke.

FRAZIER: According to the EPA, the air here is some of the worst in the country. It's a big concern for Williams, whose 13-year-old son SaVaughn has severe asthma. A long list of daily medications keeps his lungs open.

WILLIAMS: So that's his albuterol solution. That's what goes in a machine.

FRAZIER: About three years ago, his asthma started flaring up, leading to ER visits, more doctors and more medication. Around this time, regulators say, the plant's air pollution got worse. It's impossible to say whether SaVaughn's problems were linked to the Coke Works. But one research team found asthma rates for kids in Clairton are double the countywide rate.

WILLIAMS: I'm really hurt and upset about my son because he can't be a normal kid. He can't run around and go play and stay over other kids' houses because I don't know how his asthma is going to react.

FRAZIER: There are around 20 coke plants in the U.S. And many have violated clean air laws. In Clairton, it's been a problem for decades. Regulators reached major settlements with U.S. Steel over the plant's pollution violations in 1979, 1993, 2007, 2008, 2014 and 2016. But after every agreement, the plant would again fail to meet requirements.

JIM KELLY: Well, apparently, what we were doing in the past wasn't working.

FRAZIER: Jim Kelly is deputy director at the Allegheny County Health Department. In June, it tried something new. It issued an order threatening to idle parts of the plant if U.S. Steel didn't cut pollution.

KELLY: We're just not seeing that dedication to maintain the facility and maintain just good, basic operational practices.

FRAZIER: Chip Babst is an attorney for U.S. Steel, which is appealing the county's penalty.

CHIP BABST: To be honest, I would have to characterize it as aggressive and adversarial.

FRAZIER: Parts of the plant date to the '50s. Babst says the company has invested a lot to retrofit some older equipment. Environmental groups want the Coke Works to replace older units if it's going to stay open. But Babst doesn't think the plant needs new equipment to meet its requirements.

BABST: I mean, I guess you could always say new is better, but new is very, very expensive.

FRAZIER: The company says idling part of its operation would force dozens of layoffs and could damage expensive equipment. One man is especially worried about all of this.

RICH LATTANZI: My name is Mayor Rich Lattanzi, city of Clairton.

FRAZIER: Mayor Lattanzi works at another U.S. Steel plant nearby that processes steel made with coke from Clairton. The Coke Works makes up a third of the tax base of his city, which has been shrinking for decades.

LATTANZI: Do you realize what happened to the city of Clairton and the city school district if we closed that mill down? We would not be here today. We'd be like a ghost town.

Not a problem. I'm a safety guy.


FRAZIER: Lattanzi takes me on a drive by the plant and points up a hillside. He's 54 and remembers when pollution from the operation was so bad, this hill was bare. Now it's covered in trees.

LATTANZI: Years ago, nothing was able to grow - nothing. Even this right here's crazy to have trees here. It was all, like, stones and nothing.

FRAZIER: He says he wants clean air, too, but wants the plant to stay open. A decision on whether parts of the plant will have to be idled is expected in a few months. For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Clairton, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDITIVE ESCAPE'S "LIGHT RADIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reid Frazier