If you stepped outside this week in the Mon Valley, took a deep breath, and promptly asked yourself, “What is that STENCH?” we’ve identified a likely culprit: Concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) that exceeded Pennsylvania’s 24-hour standard on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and today at the Allegheny County Health Department’s (ACHD) air quality monitors in Liberty and North Braddock.
If you also asked yourself:
Is the stench dangerous?
Where is the stench coming from?
And what’s being done to stop the stench?
You’ve got a lot of great questions, and we have answers.
As one user of the CREATE Lab’s SmellPGH app put it, the air yesterday morning near Clairton had an unmistakable “sulfur/chemical/tar/burning” odor to it. Well said, and typical for other reports on the app since Monday.
But is that offensive, rotten-egg odor dangerous?
At levels thousands of times higher than occur locally, H2S is highly toxic, but even exposure to the levels of H2S we see in the Mon Valley can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat and has been linked to headaches, poor memory, tiredness, and balance problems according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Low concentrations of H2S may also cause difficulty in breathing for some asthmatics.
That is one reason why GASP has continued to sound the alarm on this issue.
Another reason is that the source of H2S locally – by and large – is steelmaking, an industrial process that has been polluting the air locally pretty much since steelmaking began.
Of course, we should mention that there are natural sources of H2S. It can be emitted from volcanoes, stagnant ponds, and pretty much anything in nature decomposing.
But the state Department of Environmental Protection emissions inventory shows U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works emitted – on average – more than 120 tons of H2S annually from 2010 to 2020, making it the largest stationary source in the state.
There is also a 2022 ACHD study that concluded, “based on all available data and resources, H2S exceedances that occurred at the Liberty site during the period of January 1, 2020, through March 1, 2022, can be attributed entirely to emissions originating at US Steel’s Clairton coking facility.”
As we said, it could be volcanoes and sewage, but it’s not volcanoes and sewage, and efforts meant to improve the situation have focused on steelmaking.
Settlement Agreements between U.S. Steel and air quality regulators related to emissions issues at the company’s Clairton Coke Works and Edgar Thomson facilities could and should have stemmed the tide of H2S exceedances at ACHD’s air quality monitors in the Mon Valley.
The 2019 Clairton settlement mandated upgrades and educational programs designed to reduce fugitive emissions, a concerning source of H2S. The agreement also tacked on additional fines for on-site violations that occur on days when H2S exceeds the state standard.
In 2022, just days after ACHD published the study mentioned above, ACHD issued a $1.8 million enforcement order against U.S. Steel over the H2S emissions issue. The company appealed the order and the case is ongoing.
Later in 2022, the Consent Decree ACHD and the EPA entered into with U.S. Steel to resolve longstanding emissions issues at the Edgar Thomson facility directed the company to begin “feeding an oxidizing chemical additive or additives such as, but not limited to, potassium permanganate or hydrogen peroxide into the Slag Pit quench water spray system, to enhance suppression of H2S emissions.”
That’s not all: The agreement also required U.S. Steel to submit to the EPA and ACHD for approval of written procedures for the slag pit that detail actions being taken to “minimize or prevent the evolution of H2S.”
In spite of all that, H2S exceedances at ACHD’s air quality monitors in the Mon Valley are trending up, not down.
But don’t take our word for it: The ACHD H2S dashboard shows there were 12 H2S exceedances at the North Braddock monitoring station in all of 2022; we've had 27 so far in 2023.
The dashboard also shows that between both Mon Valley monitors combined, we've had 101 exceedances so far this year. Over the same period last year, we only had 76.
If now you’re asking yourself, “Are you kidding me?” with maybe an extra unprintable word between you and kidding, we understand, but this time we don’t have an answer.
And that is itself a big problem.
We wish we could tell you more about those written procedures for the Slag Pit quench water spray system at Edgar Thomson, the procedures meant intended to suppress H2S exceedances like the ones we’ve seen this week in the Mon Valley.
But we can’t.
That’s because ACHD has failed to provide a public update about how - or whether - U.S. Steel has abided by the provisions of the high-profile consent agreement (you can read more about that here).
The same goes for emissions issues at the Clairton Coke Works. We hope the agreement is progressing as written, but we need County and ACHD leadership to provide substantive public updates on these agreements and any progress made toward the emissions-reduction goals in them.
The reason we need to hear from ACHD leadership is that ACHD has been limiting opportunities for residents to ask questions and provide ACHD input on their experiences with air pollution and their needs from health officials.
ACHD must be transparent with the community it’s charged with protecting.
“As we’ve been saying for years: Residents’ repeated exposure to H2S and other industry-created air pollutants isn’t just a nuisance as ACHD leaders have suggested. It’s also a legitimate health concern,” Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “Unfortunately, ACHD Air Quality Program leadership have not only failed to resolve the longstanding issue despite high-profile legal agreements, they are now shutting down opportunities for residents impacted by these issues to interact with them in a public setting.”
“Residents deserve better. A continued lack of transparency and accountability isn’t tenable.”
Editor’s Note: Please join GASP and fellow advocates at the upcoming Allegheny County Board of Health meeting to speak out about these transparency issues. Stay tuned for more info from GASP on this. In the meantime, save the date. Here’s what you need to know if you wanna join us.