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Study: Christmas Eve Fire At Clairton Coke Works Sent Scores Of People With Asthma To Hospitals And Doctor's Offices

CLAIRTON, Pa. (KDKA) -- A Christmas Eve fire at the Clairton Coke Works two years ago knocked out pollution controls at the plant and sent scores of people with asthma to hospitals, clinics and doctor's offices.

Those are the findings of a new study critical of U.S. Steel's operations there. The study shows that those trips for medical care nearly doubled in the days and weeks after the fire, and there are new calls for greater precautions for people in the Mon Valley.

Melanie Meade lives with allergies and a host of medical conditions that she said are worsened on a daily basis living near the plant, especially after the Christmas Eve fire in 2018.

"It was worse during the fires," Meade said. "But before, even on days that are so-called good, it's still pretty difficult to deal with. The stench of rotten eggs, the inability to enjoy your outdoors as you would want to."

The study says Meade is not alone. The findings show after the fire in late December to the end of February that year, 133 people showed up at doctor's offices, clinics and hospitals with asthmatic conditions. The number was 73 people over the same timeframe the year before.

Dr. Deborah Gentile, who conducted the study, called the findings significant.

"These patients weren't able to go outside," said Dr. Gentile with East Suburban Pediatrics. "They were advised to stay inside to avoid pollution exposure. And in spite of that, they were patients having an increase in asthma symptoms and having attacks that took them to doctor's offices, as well as the emergency department."

Gentile, whose previous study found that children in the Clairton area have two to three times higher rates of asthma than other parts of the state, is calling for greater pollution controls and a warning system for events like these.

"A lot of these people who live in the Mon Valley aren't on the internet. They don't have smartphones. They're not able to sign up on email alerts. We need to have a system to alert them on these air quality days and certainly when there are emergencies so they can take appropriate actions," the doctor said.

For its part, U.S. Steel said it has gone beyond federal and state air pollution control requirements and questioned the accuracy of the study, stating the Allegheny County Health Department found "no connection between the fire and any increase in emergency room visits. We agree with the (Health Department's) findings."

And despite canceling more than a billion dollars in upgrades to the Clairton Coke Works and the Mon Valley Works in Braddock, the steelmaker said it remains committed to the Mon Valley for the next generation of steelmaking to come.

Gentile does not believe demanding higher pollution controls will chase them away.

"I don't think anyone wants to see U.S. Steel close. What we want to see them operating in a clean fashion, so residents aren't being exposed to air pollution at their site," Dr. Gentile said

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