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Cloudy Future

Living in the shadow of a longtime polluter


Joel and Christine Polacci live in a handsome Tudor home, on a quiet street that straddles Ben Avon's border with Avalon. It's got three bedrooms, a renovated kitchen complete with granite countertops and a back deck that's perfect for entertaining.

Provided, that is, your guests like watching the emissions from Neville Island's Shenango coke works below.

"It's like looking down into Mordor," says Joel Polacci, as he broods over the plant's mysterious vapors, inscrutable structures and the ever-visible flame used to flare off gasses.

The Shenango facility converts coal into hotter-burning coke for use in steelmaking. Usually, the facility is swathed in a white cloud — the steam produced when a load of coke is "quenched" after cooking. Other times, though, a sickly brown plume is visible ... and on at least one occasion last year, Christine Polacci recalls, there was a smell so overpowering that "I thought the furnace was going to explode."

Such incidents are at the heart of a legal action filed last month by the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), which has documented hundreds of violations over more than a year. The local group filed a "60-day notice of intent to sue" — a warning that  the plant's owners, Detroit-based DTE Energy, must immediately begin addressing those violations or be sued in federal court.

"Hardly a day goes by where there isn't some violation at the plant," GASP legal director Joe Osbourne told reporters.

That's despite a history of sanctions that extends across decades and ownership groups. The plant was first sued by federal regulators in 1980, then cited again in 1993 and 1999. In 2008, it was purchased by DTE, which promised to improve its performance. But while the company held regular meetings with concerned residents, it ended up paying its own $1.75 million fine in 2012.

Given all that, it might seem surprising that the Polaccis didn't notice the plant until after they moved in last spring. ("When you're looking at houses, you're mostly looking at houses," explains Joel Polacci, a bit sheepishly.) But Ted Popovich, who lives across the street, says that not noticing the coke works is practically a local ritual.

"If you walked up and down the street and asked people whether the plant bothers them," Popovich says, "I bet a lot of them would say they don't think about it.'"

"Most people just say, ‘It's not as bad as it used to be,'" agrees Frank Meacci, who has lived a few doors from Popovich in a house he built more than 40 years ago. That might be true, he says, if only because the smoke is less visible. Still, "I can't be sure. You can't see it, but you smell it."

Coke-plant emissions can include all kinds of pollutants, including those the government says can cause cancer and lesions in the lungs and digestive system. And when you stroll Ben Avon's broad streets with Meacci, you start to think you can smell the pollution too: a sort of metallic smoky tang, like the first time your heat comes on in the autumn.

Popovich, for one, doesn't intend to get used to that. One of the plant's most vocal critics, he's a member of GASP and the Neville Island Good Neighbor Committee, which was formed to keep an eye on the plant. "Corporations are people, right?" he says. "But if you were a person with this many violations, you'd be in jail."

DTE spokesperson Randi Barris says that while the company acknowledges problems at the facility, critics are "looking to grab headlines." DTE inherited many of the problems when it bought the plant, she says. "Since then, we've worked hard to improve the environmental performance by making improvements and installing new technologies. ... The county data will show we have made significant improvements."

Jim Thompson, the county Health Department's deputy director of environmental health, is more circumspect. "To DTE's credit, they have implemented a significant number of improvements," he says. "But in some areas, things have gotten worse."  And in fact, "our plan was to execute an enforcement agreement well before [GASP's 60-day limit elapses] anyway."

Popovich isn't holding his breath — much as he might like to. Government officials, he says, "have to listen to a lot of different constituencies. I hope this lawsuit gives them the ‘oomph' to fix the problems."

There was a time, of course, when Pittsburghers almost took pride in being able to ignore the local air quality. But in most communities, we no longer have to bother. Instead, we espouse "green" principles, and boast of putting our industrial past behind us.

But even as Pittsburgh basks in the sun, some of its neighbors are still living beneath a cloud. Or worse: next door to one.

Kaibur Coffee
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Kaibur Coffee

By Mars Johnson