This story was produced by Gazette 2.0, a hyperlocal startup delivering impactful news to the western suburbs of Pittsburgh in print and online at gazette20.com.
Local environmental advocates are calling on county agencies to take action against a Neville Island recycling facility one year after an industrial fire sent thick billows of smog hovering over surrounding neighborhoods as it blazed for several hours.
Members of Allegheny County Clean Air Now, an advocacy group based in Emsworth, have complained for years about pollution they attribute to the Metalico scrapping plant. They say the facility is a recurring source of noise and fumes that have plagued local residents before and after last year’s blaze.
Charging county regulators with failing to take appropriate disciplinary action, ACCAN delivered a petition to officials on the day of county council’s April 12 meeting. It calls on the health department to increase facility inspections, enforce stricter operating restrictions and establish an alert system to notify residents of incidents that resemble the April 2021 fire.
“Emsworth residents are subjected to air pollution that smells like oil, gas and burning plastic, rubber and metal and that gives them headaches and makes them nauseous,” the petition states. “…The source of this air pollution is Neville Recycling [Metalico], a recycling company on Neville Island that shreds cars, probably without removing all of their plastic and rubber components.”
Representatives of Metalico meanwhile say the facility is being wrongly targeted by complaints that don’t match its profile. They argue the surge of environmental complaints against Metalico overlooks its positive contribution as a recycling facility.
In a written statement, Glenda Wehrli, Metalico’s director of environmental compliance, said she believes the pollution incidents described in the petition could not be caused by their metal shredder. Their scrapping process, Wehrli said, does not involve any combustion or melting that would produce smokey emissions, but uses a water cooling system that generates tall clouds of clear steam.
“The concerns raised…erroneously presume that Metalico’s operations cause the various issues that give rise to the complaints,” according to her statement. “We believe the error stems, in part, from a misunderstanding of the actual processes at our facility, and the industrial community in which we are located.”
Wehrli also disputed ACCAN’s claims the health department is slacking on its oversight of the facility, which she said is visited by inspectors on a near-weekly basis. Similarly, Chris Togneri, Allegheny County Health Department public health information officer, said in a statement Metalico is inspected more than any other county facility after US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works.
“The Allegheny County Health Department expects 100 percent compliance from all pollution emissions sources,” he said. “All sources in Allegheny County are subject to regular inspections, and all sources are required to adhere to and operate under the rules and regulations of their permits, which are based on federal, state and local standards.”
ACCAN members say they’re nevertheless frustrated that these inspections don’t bring tangible outcomes, like fines or citations requiring corrective action. The organization has a camera set up on a hill overlooking the site and publishes video and reports on a public blog. The organization claims to have chronicled more than 350 pollution incidents since 2018.
“We’re glad that [the health department] is monitoring Metalico regularly,” said Angelo Taranto, ACCAN secretary. “But in the four or five years since we’ve been doing this, that monitoring hasn’t really changed anything.”
The facility has not yet been cited for any violations stemming from the April 2021 fire. Togneri said he could not comment on whether any enforcement actions may be forthcoming, referring to “an ongoing legal matter.”
Several months after the fire, in October 2021, the EPA issued Metalico a notice of violation for operating without the correct permitting. The notice was not issued in response to the fire, but because the EPA believes the facility may be generating enough air pollution over the course of a year to require a Title V permit. Wehrli disputes this.
Metalico has also been challenged in a class-action suit filed in November by an Emsworth resident who claims the plant “emits substantial and unreasonable noxious odors, particulates, and noise that invade the plaintiff’s…properties, causing damages through private nuisance, public nuisance, and negligence.” The suit is seeking to open up relief for anyone within a mile of the Neville Island facility, which, according to the filing, extends to approximately 1,180 households.
Preliminary objections filed on behalf of Metalico claim the complaints are overly vague and lack solid evidence of wrongdoing.
Since the fire, Wehrli said Metalico has invested in safety upgrades they hope will prevent a recurrence.
“Contrary to the petition’s representations of our business, we implemented several remedial changes after the April 14, 2021 fire to prevent such an incident going forward,” Wehrli said. “The changes we have made and improvements to our infrastructure were approved by the township with input and consultation from the Health Department. We have not experienced a similar fire event since.”
Jamie Wiggan is the editor-in-chief of Gazette 2.0. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.