In late 2015, many folks who live just north of Pittsburgh got what they considered to be welcomed environmental news: DTE Energy would be closing its Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island.
Thaddeus Popovich was one of those who was pleased when the Shenango plant baked its last batch of coal into coke.
“When the plant was here you could absolutely smell it,” says Popovich. “You could smell rotten eggs, you could smell sort of a gritty smell, like partially burned coal, which is what it is.”
Tanya Bielski-Braham agrees. She recalls what amazed her most was that when the plant shut down, she stopped noticing how the air smelled.
“You shouldn’t notice how air smells. That should be just a natural human thing, like you go out and you breathe.”
On a recent evening in Bel Avon, memories of those bad smells brought together a group of people who have gotten to know each other through years of fighting the coke plant. Many of them believe its pollution exacerbated their families’ allergies, asthma, and other health problems. They gathered to celebrate the publication of Living Downwind, a collection of 21 stories from people whose lives were impacted by pollution from the plant.
One by one, contributors went up on a small stage to share their stories. Barbara Pace was the first to take the mic. She talked about how a divorce left her with limited housing options. She wanted a place that would be safe, affordable and in a good school district. Pace, her adult son, grandson and 92-year-old father settled on Bellevue. She remembered hearing about Shenango’s pollution, but she didn’t think it would blow into neighboring communities. Pace says she was unaware, uninformed and uneducated. And then she started to smell putrid odors and feel burning in her eyes and throat.
“I would run down to my father’s bedroom, fearful he had started a fire of some sort,” Pace says. “It was only after going outside that I fully realized the odor was literally in the air, reminding me of when my brother had to shovel coal into our furnace in the late ‘40s.”
Pace read in the paper about a meeting to address the poor air quality. So she went.
“This was a real awakening as to how dire and for how many years this serious problem of unhealthy air had been affecting the hundreds of residents in attendance that evening.”
Pace learned that coking facilities create some of the most toxic of industrial emissions. And the Shenango plant had a long history of air and water violations. It’s paid more than two million dollars in fines through a series of federal and Allegheny County consent orders as far back as 1980.
Pace was motivated to join a group called Neville Island Good Neighbors. It wanted to work with the plant to fix the air problems. Shenango Coke Works hosted their monthly meetings and even provided dinner.
“I teasingly asked if they were serving us stuffed cabbage to try and lessen the gagging fumes,” says Pace.“The next month they gave us chicken.”
Within a very short period of time, Pace says they realized that Shenango was not interested in being a good neighbor, and that the citizens were being used as pawns. They changed their name to reflect their commitment: Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN).
Next to share her story was Dawn Winter. She moved from the east coast to Pittsburgh for graduate school. When she had a child, she stated looking for a home. Her real estate agent suggested Bellevue because of it’s affordable housing and funky vibe. She found a house there they loved and bought it.
“Nowhere along the way, as I was carting around a five month old infant, did anyone say anything about Shenango,” says Winter. “I didn’t grow up in an area where there is a lot of pollution and industrial sources. It really was never on my radar to think to ask anyone.”
Soon after moving to Bellevue in 2014, Winter started noticing the smell. She says it smelled like the roads were being tarred on a daily basis.
“I just thought Bellevue was really, really proactive with taking care of the roads in summer. It seemed legitimate until I started noticing that it was happening in the middle of the night and on the weekends. And then I started realizing something was wrong. I started looking into what was around me, and I found out about Shenango. I spent months very, very angry. And then I saw a sign for a community meeting from ACCAN.”
Winter attended the meeting and met people with similar stories of moving to the area, unaware of the air pollution. Once they understood the problem, many were also angry, and started working against the plant.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University had also started tracking the plant’s emissions. They set up cameras — one in the attic of a nearby residence — to take images 24 hours a day of Shenango’s pollution. They were compiled, analyzed and made easily accessible online. In 2015, CMU shared their findings with officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection at a community meeting.
Dawn Winter recalls a DEP official attending a community meeting and being “absolutely appalled” at videos put together by CMU’s create lab showing the egregious pollution that was coming out of Shenango on a daily basis. (Photo: Create Lab)
When the company announced it was shutting down, it blamed the flagging steel market. But Winter believes there was a different reason at play.
“It just seems to me that when they were forced with being held accountable, suddenly the economy came into play. And Shenango decided that perhaps it was better to shut down a facility that was being watched closely rather than having to constantly fend off issues from community activists.”
173 people lost their jobs when the plant closed. But Winters says the entire community was impacted when the plant was open. She, herself, was diagnosed with asthma this year.
“And as the mother of a young child, I lived every day until that plant shut down, holding my breath, hoping she would not get sick.”
As Winters and others in this community declare victory in Shenango’s closing, they’re also staying active. ACCAN has petitioned DTE Energy to build a solar array on the site.
They want to continue NOT to notice the air they’re breathing.