GASP to ACHD: Time To Create Crisis Communications Plan in Wake of Metalico Fire, Pollution Concerns
PHOTO CREDIT: BREATHE PROJECT
GASP on Tuesday joined our friends and fellow advocates at Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) and others to demand accountability and action following a fire at a Neville Island-based metal recycling facility that took several hours to control and sent a noxious plume of smoke wafting into neighboring communities.
The Sept. 16 fire was the second in two years at Metalico - a facility ACCAN and residents have been sounding the alarm over for years - and was the spark for renewed demands for the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to tighten up provisions in its synthetic minor source operating permit and increase regulatory scrutiny.
“The community is concerned about the scrap pile fires that occur at Metalico, particularly the very large ones that occurred on April 14, 2021, and on Sept. 16, 2023,” ACCAN wrote in formal comments to ACHD. “In both of these cases, toxic smoke from the fires blew into
communities causing panic, health effects, and concerns about what was happening.
You can read ACCAN’s full comments here.
At a public hearing on that draft permit hosted by ACHD Tuesday, GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell told officials they need to create a crisis communications plan for when outages and fires like the ones at Metalico and Steel’s Mon Valley Works to ensure residents get timely health-based information from the department to help them mitigate exposure to air pollution from these events.
Here are his full comments:
Good afternoon. My name is Patrick Campbell, I am the executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), a non-profit organization working to improve local air quality since 1969.
The fire at Neville Island-based Metalico Recycling on Sept. 16 fouled local air. It frightened local residents, who witnessed more than a dozen fire trucks racing through the township to respond to the blaze. Noxious emissions from the fire impacted residents in places like McKees Rocks, the North Side, the South Side, and as far away as Dormont.
Information about the fire and massive plume it created was hard to come by in real-time: Residents told us they wondered why an acrid, burning plastic odor was wafting into their windows, assaulting their olfactory and, in at least one case, waking their small children.
While residents on social media and media eventually got the word out, to our dismay, the Allegheny County Health Department was again mum until well after the flames were extinguished. When it did alert residents, the messaging was late and woefully inadequate, telling the public only that the fire had occurred and PM2.5 levels did not exceed regulatory limits. From Metalico’s permit, we all know more was emitted than PM2.5.
Yes, ACHD is charged with regulating air pollution sources in the county, however, ACHD is a health department. Residents should be able to trust that when air quality is poor, they can look to you for answers and guidance about how to protect themselves from unhealthy air.
There is no reasonable reason preventing ACHD from communicating when emissions emergencies occur at a permitted facility.
September 16 was a beautiful night. People likely had their windows open. Residents should be able to expect their HEALTH department to tell them when there’s an industrial emergency at a permitted source that could impact PM2.5, VOC, other hazardous air pollutants, and ultimately their health. Had they been notified, they would have been able to take actions to mitigate exposure.
That’s why GASP is calling on ACHD to create a public crisis communication plan for when fires and other emergencies occur at permitted facilities. This was the second fire at Metalico and several fires at other permitted sources this year. During each emergency, the public wasn’t alerted until after. Notifying the public in semi-real time would have prevented exposure to harmful air pollution.
Stay tuned. GASP continues to follow this issue closely and will keep you posted.
Editor’s Note: Big THANK YOU to WPXI, for its coverage of this important issue. Check it out: