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KDKA Investigates: Mon Valley trapped in pollution inversion for 5 days last week

KDKA Investigates: Mon Valley trapped in pollution inversion for 5 days last week
KDKA Investigates: Mon Valley trapped in pollution inversion for 5 days last week 03:35

CLAIRTON, Pa. (KDKA) - Among other health concerns, Johnnie Perryman has a heart condition and when particulate pollution from the Clairton Coke Works is elevated, his heart races and he gets short of breath, making a walk to the corner an arduous task. Last week even that wasn't a possibility.

"It smelled like rotten eggs," he said. "You couldn't breathe, it was dangerous for anybody to go outside."

For the better part of five days last week, the Mon Valley was trapped in a pollution inversion, which is when cold air settles close to the ground and a layer of warmer air forms on top, trapping the pollution below.

"Under inversion conditions, it's like having a lid on the pollution," said Matthew Mehalik of the Breathe Project. "The pollution doesn't go anywhere, it just stays there and accumulates."

According to the Allegheny County Health Department, for two of those days last week, the air in Clairton exceeded federal particulate pollution levels and that rotten egg smell was from multiple exceedances of hydrogen sulfide caps, causing a prolonged danger to children, the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. 

The worst inversion in our history happened in Donora in 1948 when trapped stagnant smog took the lives of 20 people and sickened thousands. To prevent pollution from building up during these events, the county has now implemented an inversion episode rule, requiring the Coke Works and 16 other Mon Valley facilities to cut back production when an inversion warning is issued.

"So when the episode warning was issued, those facilities were immediately notified and those countermeasures were to go into place," said David Good of the health department. 

For its part, U.S. Steel says using its own weather service, it implemented the cutbacks prior to the inversion and believes the pollution came from a variety of sources. "We utilized our episode plan agreed on with the (health department) throughout the inversion. We believe that inversions are a regional issue, and the episode rule should extend beyond the Mon Valley."

While U.S. Steel says it has invested $250 million into the Coke Works to improve pollution controls, the county has fined them roughly $10 million over the past two years for violations. And while environmentalists applaud those actions, they're asking the county for even stricter enforcement and earlier implementation of the episode rule.

"I think this latest episode illustrates a need to update that rule so there can be more proactive action," Mehalik said.

And it isn't just the Mon Valley. There were thousands of smell complaints last week, even in downtown Pittsburgh, and we can expect more. October and November are the times when inversions are most frequent and long-lasting and so this episode rule will likely be tested again. The county says it is continually evaluating ways to make it stronger.  

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