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Kristine Pace was packing a bag to care for her injured father on April 14 when she smelled burning plastic and began frantically searching her Emsworth home to see what had caught fire.
Melanie Holcomb was walking her dogs nearby when she noticed a stench so intense that she saw a driver pull over to see if the engine had caught fire. Neighbors wandered onto their porches. When a cloud of black smoke drifted across the Ohio River and into view, Holcomb said, she hurried home.
A large industrial fire had erupted at Metalico, a metal recycling facility on Neville Island.
Holcomb, the mayor of neighboring Ben Avon, wanted to know what she should tell her residents about the health risk as worries circulated on social media. But she couldn’t get a clear answer. Emsworth resident Angela Garcia and her son got headaches and escaped for dinner. At least four families spent the night away from home.
According to 12 nearby residents interviewed for this story, the April 14 fire is just the most blatant recent example of the frequent pollution that plagues the area around Neville Island, including several vulnerable communities like McKees Rocks and Stowe.
Sonią Kowal said she thought the pollution outside her Emsworth home would improve after the Shenango Coke Works closed at the end of 2015. But the smell didn’t go away and, in fact, the screeching sound of crunching metal and occasional explosions she hears across the river from Metalico, only seemed to get worse.
Metalico says it abides by regulations and, when it has been fined for violations, it has made subsequent changes and improvements.
Officially, the air quality near Neville Island meets the long-term air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]. But some residents say there are still days when the air quality is so bad they have to close their windows and stay inside.
The Allegheny County Health Department’s ability to enforce EPA air quality violations is limited by the nine official monitors it uses to measure air quality.
Only one, in Avalon, is dedicated to recording the pollution downwind from Neville Island.
For several hours after the April 14 fire started, the Avalon monitor recorded ordinary levels of pollution, even as a video camera in Kowal’s backyard showed a tower of billowing black smoke. By 7 p.m., the smoke and steam captured by the camera was so thick it was impossible to see anything but the very top of the hills in the distance. At 9 p.m., the official Avalon monitor finally showed a small spike of dirty particulate that was about 90% above its long-term average.
By contrast, there were four unofficial air quality monitors nearby, owned by citizens and Carnegie Mellon, which showed spikes in carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds among the highest those monitors had ever recorded.
Carnegie Mellon’s monitor right across the river detected spikes of particulate between 3,000% to 8,000% above the long-term average over several hours, the highest level ever recorded. The EPA’s monitors don’t measure volatile organic compounds, including benzene, a known carcinogen.
According to the official monitor, it was a mild pollution event; according to the citizens’ monitors, it was some of the worst pollution in recent memory. And this discrepancy — according to nearby residents, academics and environmental groups — is a problem.
More air monitors now
Allegheny County Clean Air Now [ACCAN], a group of residents who have been trying to reduce air pollution near Neville Island since 2014, is asking the health department to install additional air monitors that will capture shorter pollution events, like the fire, which the official monitors don’t fully capture.
This problem isn’t unique to Neville Island, as EPA air monitors across the nation have routinely missed toxic pollution events that have left individuals hospitalized. In 2019, a refinery explosion in Philadelphia released nearly 700,000 pounds of toxic chemicals but the nearby air monitors reported one of the healthiest air quality days of the year.
In addition to Metalico, ACCAN has identified 26 other polluters within the local airshed, including Neville Chemical, Neville Island Terminals and Lindy Paving, Inc. These sites and others form a tight chain of industry stretching across portions of McKees Rocks, Stowe, Coraopolis and Robinson. ACCAN members say the health department has expanded its air quality network in the Mon Valley, which is proof that more can be done.
“It’s much more difficult to identify the smaller polluters,” said Ken Holmes, ACCAN co-founder and Bellevue resident. “They’re really not noticeable enough to point your finger at them. But [it’s] the cumulative effect of all these smaller polluters ... that make our air in this region bad.”
Health inspectors have told residents it’s nearly impossible to identify where the pollution is coming from. Neville resident Amanda Gillooly, who works for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, said the large industrial sites on the eastern tip of the island release the foulest odors. But by the time the fumes reach her home a couple miles away, they’re hard to pin down.
“It’s a lot worse than people think it is,” she said. “Just because it’s not one large polluter, I think it’s really flown under the radar.”
The health department says it conducts a review of its air quality monitors every five years. Its last reviews took place when the Shenango Coke Works closed around 2016 and again in 2020. Both reviews confirmed that Avalon was the best place to capture pollution downwind from Neville Island, according to an emailed statement from the department.
“The Health Department’s equipment is EPA-examined and approved,” the department noted. “Home monitors use different measuring principles and will measure differently, with lower accuracy and precision.”
ACCAN says that, even though these monitors are less precise on their own, they collectively point to trends that the official monitors miss because they are cheaper and more abundant. During the April 14 fire, for example, the four citizen monitors were showing spikes of pollution almost immediately after the fire started, even though the official monitor’s smaller spike didn’t happen until hours later.
The data from citizen air monitors can’t be used in court cases against companies but the EPA has acknowledged that they can be useful at identifying localized pollution trends. The agency includes data from these monitors in a new map of fire smoke that it says “can help you get a picture of air quality nearest you.”
Conscientious recycler or negligent polluter?
Even without additional monitors, ACCAN says there is more than enough video evidence and air quality data near the Metalico plant for the health department to take other actions, like sending inspectors more frequently and issuing additional fines.
ACCAN believes its advocacy contributed to Shenango’s eventual shuttering in 2016. A health department analysis showed dangerous soot in the air decreased about 11% the following year. The number of emergency room visits for breathing problems fell by more than a third and for heart problems by more than a quarter during the same period. Both conditions get worse when pollution spikes. The group hopes that similar pressure on Metalico will bring more improvements.
It wasn’t until Kowal told ACCAN about the pollution and noise from Metalico in 2018 that the group began to shift its attention to Metalico. Carnegie Mellon installed a 24-hour video camera and an air quality sensor across the river from Metalico later that year.
According to ACCAN, the company is one of the only businesses on Neville that still emits visible pollution on a regular basis. There have been more than 1,000 air quality complaints made on the SmellPgh app in the four zip codes in and around Neville Island since October 2016. The vast majority did not identify the source of the smell. But around 10% specifically identified Metalico. No other company was mentioned by even 1% of the complaints.
ACCAN hopes to set an example for other companies with less visible pollution. It has compiled hundreds of resident complaints about Metalico since 2018, alongside video and pollution data from nearby monitors. In many of these cases, Angelo Taranto, the secretary for ACCAN, said Metalico was violating a regulation that prohibits thick smoke.
Metalico says it’s been unfairly singled out. The health department has never been able to identify an odor that can be traced back to the company, according to Glenda Wehrli, director of environmental compliance and employee safety, who responded to questions in an email. Emsworth is not located downwind of Metalico, she said, so it’s unlikely any pollution detected there is from them.
“Factors such as neighboring industries on Neville Island, boat and rail traffic along the Ohio River, nearby automobile traffic, and potential sources of emission near the actual air monitoring equipment all contribute to air pollution,” Wehrli wrote.
Metalico employs 70 people, it says, and metal recycling is good for the environment. It transports metal on barges, which pollute less than the 58 semi-trucks it would otherwise take to transport their materials, the company notes. It operates according to its permits and has created action plans to fix problems after the health department levied fines.
The health department did not respond to questions about Metalico specifically because it is considering whether the fire violated any laws and whether enforcement actions are needed, according to Chris Togneri, a spokesperson.
ACCAN is not trying to put Metalico out of business, Taranto said, but he and other members believe more monitoring by the health department would help resolve disputes about where the pollution is coming from.
“We feel there are more responsible ways of operating,” Taranto said. “Recycling obviously is extremely important for the environment but doing it in a way that harms people by producing air pollution doesn’t make sense.”
A persistent few
It’s become harder for ACCAN to mobilize residents after Shenango closed, Taranto said. Neville Island no longer hosts any of the 10 biggest polluters in the county. The app SmellPgh recorded only five complaints on April 14 after the fire, even though thousands of residents were in the path of the smoke. A total of 11 residents complained about the fire at the May 5 Board of Health meeting, most of whom are ACCAN’s most active members.
The public’s attention in Allegheny County has been focused on the Mon Valley, where pollution from the Clairton Coke Works routinely draws large meetings and protests. Fires at the Clairton Coke Works in 2019 and 2020 drew public responses much larger than two recent fires at Metalico, the second of which occured on May 22. The Mon Valley also has larger populations of low-income and Black residents.
The health department said Neville Island is still a priority. “The Mon Valley and Neville Island area are still the two areas receiving the most time and attention from the Air Quality Staff,” the health department said. “The approach and belief that all residents deserve clean, healthy air has not and will never change.”
Emsworth, Ben Avon and Avalon, the closest communities to Metalico, aren’t in the top 50% of communities nationwide with low-income populations or people of color, according to the EPA. To the south and west of Neville Island, multiple census tracts spanning parts of Coraopolis, McKees Rocks and Stowe are recognized as environmental justice zones by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, which means at least 20% of residents are below poverty or 30% identify as non-white.
ACCAN has, however, struggled to recruit residents in these communities.
“The problem in general is getting very busy people to come out to meetings and participate. That’s just doubly and triply an issue when you talk about lower income people working multiple jobs,” Taranto said.
The handful of residents who are complaining the loudest in Emsworth live in large houses with soaring views of the Ohio River. And for some of them, the loud noises from metal dumps are their biggest problem at this point, not air pollution.
“We moved here, we chose to live here and we knew what we were getting into,” said Brian, who lives across the Ohio River from Metalico but didn’t want his last name used because of how close he lives to the company. “We accept the dust and the smell occasionally. But the working at 3 a.m. and the clanking, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Metalico says it schedules its operations to reduce noise during off-hours and said it abides by Neville’s ordinances.
A metal recycling plant in Chicago recently closed after its largely white neighbors complained about the noise and pollution. The company moved the plant into a predominantly Latino section of town and promised the new plant would be state of the art. While ACCAN doesn’t want the plant to relocate in a poorer community, Taranto said that it is going to reach out to the EPA, which helped put pressure on the Chicago plant.
“We don’t feel it’s our job to figure out the technology that they could use to do their job in a way that wouldn’t pollute,” he said. “That’s really their job and the job of regulators.”
Regulators respond to complaints
A number of residents expressed frustration at the health department for not responding in detail to their complaints. Health department emails will often say they relayed the complaint to Metalico but little else. Ana Hoffman, the director of air quality engagement at Carnegie Mellon’s CreateLab, said ACCAN has shown enough sophistication about the science and regulation of air pollution that the health department should engage with the group more directly.
But a series of emails and documents from the health department obtained through a Right-to-Know request show that ACCAN’s complaints contributed to the health department’s crackdown on loud explosions that were routinely occuring at Metalico between 2017 and 2019.
In 2018, the health department requested Metalico’s daily operator logs after receiving numerous complaints. And, for the next two months, the operator of the machine that shreds up cars, listed as Kevin, reported at least one “fire/explosion” on the majority of his shifts and sometimes two or three. On Jan. 12, 2018, he wrote “huge fireball shot out of shredder.” On Jan. 31, 2018, he wrote “huge fire - flames everywhere.”
Metalico began reporting these problems to the health department directly. “These are the same incidents that are being heard or seen off‐site and are likely the ones that are being reported or called‐in to our Department as complaints,” one health inspector wrote to Metalico. The inspector said he needed to see reports from Metalico’s internal investigations in order to “close-out the complaints that are associated with each of the incidents reported.”
Fines from the health department increased. In 2016, Metalico paid $800 to the health department. But in 2018, the health department increased how much it could fine companies. Metalico was fined $2,600 for violating its permit in January 2018 and then $6,900 in November for air quality violations from the explosions. In 2019, Metalico paid $12,750 in fines for excessive pollution, including $4,250 for being a repeat offender over the previous two years.
More fines are likely on the way: A health department report from the April 14 fire shows that an inspector witnessed smoke that was 100% opaque. A company can be fined when the smoke’s opacity is above 60%. The health department filed another report for a smaller fire at Metalico on May 22.
Metalico has been forced to create plans to address the root causes of its pollution, health department documents show. Metalico had to warn suppliers that it would penalize them if it sold them unsafe materials; it added inspections, and it hired an independent air quality monitor.
The explosions at Metalico that used to shake the homes of Emsworth residents weekly and sometimes daily are much less frequent, according to nearby residents.
These changes wouldn’t have happened without ACCAN, Holcomb said, because very few people have the tenacity to report every problem.
Companies like Metalico, “count on you getting tired, having a life and not being able to work full time monitoring them and talking to the health department and organizing your neighbors,” Holcomb said. “There is a natural assumption that if people are speaking up for a while, they won’t do it forever and they will go away.”
Groups like ACCAN have helped fill a void and have provided hope that their efforts can be successful, Holcomb said. In one email, a health department official said the former director, Karen Hacker, was paying close attention to Neville Island because of ACCAN.
“Dr. Hacker may want to be aware of this order prior to issuance because it includes Metalico, a focal point of ACCAN’s camera,” the email read.
Residents have not been able to get much help from their local municipalities.
Kowal, who lives across the river from Metalico, said she has been told she shouldn’t have moved to an industrial area. “I didn’t. I moved to Emsworth, which is a residential area,” she said.
Brian and his wife, who live near Kowal, sometimes tell their 7- and 13-year-old daughters to play inside because the pollution is so bad. In May 2019, their family and four others complained to the Emsworth Borough Council but were told borough officials couldn’t force Neville Island to do anything.
Holcomb wishes Neville Island would act like a better neighbor to her Ben Avon community.
When reached by email, Richard Rutter, the chairman of Neville’s board, referred all questions to the township manager, Jeanne Creese.
Creese declined an interview request for this story and didn’t answer a majority of the questions that were emailed. But she did explain some of the township’s limitations in two email responses.
For instance, Emsworth residents have complained about loud noises from Metalico late at night and early in the morning. Neville’s industrial zoning regulations do not limit a plant’s hours of operation, Creese said.
The township does limit how much noise a company can make, but Creese said the 2003 ordinance doesn’t apply to industrial uses that were grandfathered in before 2003.
Neville’s ordinance also prohibits odors, but Creese said the township lets the health department regulate pollution because of its superior technical expertise.
The mayor of Emsworth, Amy Sue Lillie, said Creese doesn’t respond to emailed complaints. She met with the health department on June 11 to discuss Emsworth’s options and invited Neville Island to attend but no one from the township attended. Lillie said she is hopeful that Neville will eventually come to the table.
“I understand they need businesses in their community but we need to make sure everyone is following by the rules,” she said. “I want to make sure all our residents are safe, both theirs and ours.”
What’s in the air?
Residents continue to wonder what’s in the air they’re breathing. One letter from the EPA to Metalico said companies like Metalico typically produce more than 50 tons of volatile organic compounds per year. That’s about 10% of how much the Shell ethane cracker plant will emit when it is fully operational, which will be the largest source in Western Pennsylvania.
Residents with health conditions, like Kathleen Krebs of Brighton Heights, say they have to limit their activities based on how clean the air is. Even when it’s moderately bad, she said, she can feel it in her chest. Neville resident Marisa Haney says every few months her life is disrupted by an overpowering stench that sweeps across the island late in the evening and lingers until morning.
"If it’s so potent that you wake up in the middle of the night, it just can’t be good for your body,” Haney said.
She wants there to be compromise. "I don’t want companies to leave. I don’t want them to lose jobs,” she said. “I just want them to do it in a safe way."
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
Jamie Wiggan is the Editor-in-Chief of Gazette 2.0 and can be reached by email at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.