After moving to Uptown in 2002, 69-year-old James Simon developed asthma symptoms that got worse over the years. While adapting to newfound huffing and puffing and regular use of an inhaler, he noticed a distinct, unwavering smell of asphalt around his home in Uptown.
The logical source of this smell? The nearby asphalt plant, owned by The Lindy Group. Neighbors also noticed the smell and began to worry about what effect the plant had on the area’s air quality and their health.
On July 10, Simon learned from a neighbor that the Allegheny County Health Department was considering modifying the plant’s permit to allow it to expand operations, and that there would be a public meeting about it on the following day.
Simon attended the meeting, along with two other people. The department’s representative was polite, but he left feeling disempowered.
“We aren’t experts on the subject, right?” Simon said. “So when she talked about how they … evaluate companies by the kind of machinery they have and what they put out, we can’t really respond to that.”
The department confirmed that the new permit, still under review, would allow for fewer restrictions on the plant’s operations, likely leading to emissions increases. Environmental advocates — some of whom were unable to attend the meeting because of confusion over scheduling — and some Uptown residents find the plant’s emissions concerning and the public input process flimsy.
“Not only is this plant impactful for the whole region,” said Matt Mehalik, the Breathe Project’s executive director, “but it’s particularly impactful for a lot of people. … It’s a dense part of the city and a neighborhood that has borne lots of different past social and environmental injustices.”
Permit would allow more pollution
The Lindy Group, a sister group of the well-known, large construction business PJ Dick, has more than a dozen asphalt plants in Pennsylvania, including multiple in the Pittsburgh area. Its website boasts its plants can produce as much as 600 tons of asphalt per hour.
PJ Dick and the plant did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.
More stories on the environment
A notice from the Health Department notes that the Uptown plant’s permit, up for renewal after five years, will allow an increase to the plant’s annual production and get rid of restrictions on annual operating hours. The plant would newly be allowed to operate during the winter and increase overall emissions throughout each one-year period, up to an additional:
- 4.04 tons of particulate matter
- 0.68 tons of sulfur oxides
- 6.10 tons of nitrogen oxides
- 26.64 tons of carbon monoxide
- 9.75 tons of volatile organic compounds.
The new permit would allow increases in emissions of pollutants ranging from 20% to more than 100%, and one substance — formaldehyde — would go from a 1.16 ton-per-year limit to unlimited. The notice did not note this change to formaldehyde limits.
The Lindy Group must submit emissions records to the Health Department every six months.
More than 15 people, including Uptown residents, environmental advocates and Allegheny County Councilmember Bethany Hallam, signed a letter sent to the county July 11, the day of the public meeting, denouncing the proposed new permit and making a series of requests. (One signature came from Dale McNutt, who owns 5thAVE Studio, which leases space to several residences and businesses, including PublicSource.)
The letter asked for an additional public meeting or series of meetings, independent fence-line monitoring of the plant, reconsideration of winter operations and tightening of the proposed increases on various emissions.
In response to an inquiry from PublicSource, Health Department Deputy Director Geoff Rabinowitz explained that the county follows established federal, state and county law when designing permits.
“The purpose of a permit is to act as the fully enforceable regulatory guide that specifies a specific facility’s requirements and details how it will stay within compliance of those conditions,” Rabinowitz wrote in an email.
Impactful emissions, inconvenient public process
Advocates and residents fear that relying upon reports from the plant and allowing the plant to create more emissions would lead to worse air quality.
Within 2 miles of the plant live 86,000 residents, who are disproportionately people of color (38%) and of low-income (48%), according to Mehalik of the Breathe Project. The Uptown neighborhood already suffers from other notable sources of pollution, he added, such as the traffic in the Fifth and Forbes corridor from cars and diesel buses. The Breathe Project has collaborated with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab to study the air quality at nearby residents’ homes.
The plant will especially impact Uptown’s many elderly residents, said Brittany McDonald, the executive director since 2020 of the nonprofit revitalization group Uptown Partners of Pittsburgh.
“We are in objection to any type of increased emissions, or adjustment of their permit that would allow them to have increased emissions, that would negatively impact the community,” McDonald said.
Leigh Yock, vice president of Uptown Partners, has lived near the plant for more than five years and was diagnosed with asthma earlier this year. She attended the recent public meeting.
“It seemed like a formality and that it would go through no matter what,” Yock said.
The letter included among its signers Christine Graziano, who has worked in environmental advocacy and began researching and facilitating community meetings about the plant with the Breathe Project, but who was out of the country at the time of the public meeting. The letter detailed a request to the county to delay the meeting, but the county declined. (Graziano has conducted freelance reporting and fact-checking for PublicSource on non-environmental topics.)
The Clean Air Council also sent its own letter to the Health Department, expressing similar concerns as the other letter. In its letter, the council described the meeting notice as “incomplete and confusing,” as it didn’t mention key information such as the proposed end to limits of formaldehyde emissions. It also pointed out language in the Health Department’s notice that left residents unsure about whether they had to sign up for the meeting by July 6 or July 10.
The meeting also took place in Lawrenceville, which could be inconvenient to Uptown residents, according to Mehalik, who said the Breathe Project led efforts to inform residents about the public meeting. The residents he’d spoken to hadn’t heard there would be a meeting until the Breathe Project reached out, he said.
“It’s hard to get people to show up for something like that that’s inconvenient for people, and as a result, it probably didn’t get enough community voices that express what it’s like to live in close proximity to the plant,” Mehalik said.
Following its standard procedure, the department had a public comment period of 30 days and publicized this in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 8, on the county’s website from June 8 to July 6 and in emails to interested parties on June 8. The public meeting took place on the last of the 30 days.
John Fleenor was one of the few attendees at that public meeting.
Fleenor said he has smelled asphalt around his Uptown home, within 2 miles of the plant, for 10 years. The 56-year-old and his wife, Helen Perilloux, allowed CREATE Lab to install air reading detectors to be installed outside their house to help experts understand the impact of the plant.
He said he found the public meeting to be overwhelming. The representative from the county was kind and willing to listen and answer questions, but he and the other residents didn’t really know what to ask.
“It turns out, we don’t really know much about how air permits work and all that,” Fleenor said.
Despite his frustrations, Simon believes that the county is acting in good faith and following procedure.
“They’re probably doing it by the book,” Simon said, “and the book is probably terrible.”
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.