Here's What the Post-Gazette Editorial Board Got Wrong About the Mon Valley's H2S Problem


At GASP, sometimes we read commentaries on air quality so bereft of facts, insight, and empathy that we must respond. The Oct. 18 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial addressing the onslaught of hydrogen sulfide exceedances in the Mon Valley this month titled, “Hydrogen sulfide alerts bring good and bad news” is one such commentary.


Our criticism starts with the title itself: “[Insert any pollutant here] alerts” can never be “good news.” Ever. Under any circumstances.


Basic human decency demands that people being exposed to any “alert” level of air pollution must always be “bad news.” Having to even point that out is deeply troubling.


The editorial’s opening line was not an improvement.


In it, the editorial board framed the most recent hydrogen sulfide (H2S) problem as one that lasted “several days.” In fact, on all seven days of the week in question (Oct 9 - 16), Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) air monitor data from Liberty Borough showed concentrations of H2S exceeded the state 24-hour standard (see data graph at the end of this story).


Describing an entire week as “several days” is grossly misleading, but failing to mention the five additional exceedances of the standard immediately adjacent to that week (Oct 5, 6, 7, 16, and 17) is just poor journalism.


To its credit, the editorial board pointed out the likely culprit – U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works – as well as ACHD’s efforts to reign in H2S emission via a $1.8 million enforcement action.


No credit is due the editorial board for its ensuing series of fact-bending, disingenuous statements that made us question the very purpose of the Editorial.


The board suggested inversions – not industrial emissions from polluters like U.S. Steel – “caused” the problem.


False.


Inversions only limit air pollution's ability to disburse. Think of it this way: If someone passes gas in an elevator versus an open field, the human experience for those nearby is worse in the elevator but the elevator didn't “cause” the episode. The “cause” is more correctly a lack of consideration for neighbors and/or the failure to manage internal processes.


The board asserted as a fact that the H2S issues “were not caused by increases in emissions from the U.S. Steel facility” but it could not possibly make that statement based on independently verified facts just days after the exceedances.


In fairness, GASP cannot fully assess blame for the precise, technical cause of the exceedances either, but it is worth noting that on Oct. 5, H2S levels at the Liberty monitor exceeded 0.100 parts per million, twice. Before then, concentrations of H2S that high had only been measured nine times in the past 20 years.


We think that maybe – just maybe – something out of the ordinary was going on.


The board suggested, “the impact of H2S on human health is small” and that “[c]ompared to EPA-regulated pollutants like particulate matter and sulfur dioxide . . . H2S is benign.”


It was here, along with later incorrect or misleading assertions about these more “dangerous” pollutants meeting federal standards, that the editorial took its largest step away from respectability.


We cannot imagine the level of arrogance or detachment from reality necessary to think, “Not long ago, stinky hydrogen sulfide would have been the least of residents’ worries.”


Did the editorial board think one pollutant disrupting and interfering with residents’ lives should be celebrated as proof that other pollutants are ruining fewer lives? Did the board mean that residents who had suffered through this most recent bout of poor air quality should be grateful it wasn’t worse?


That is how it felt, meaning it felt morally reprehensible.


Whether or not some pollutants are less of a concern today, the editorial displayed an unconscionable disregard for the experience of living, breathing people whose health and wellbeing have been interrupted all too often by poor air quality – in the past and in the past few weeks.


Newspapers have a duty to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work and verify information before publication. Displaying some level of humanity is also a nice touch. The Editorial Board should know better. Post-Gazette readers and local residents suffering from the effects of air pollution certainly deserve better.


Editor's Note: We graphed recent H2S concentrations for those who would like to take a deeper dive into the data.







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