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Locals say a fire on Neville Island shows the pollution didn’t stop after Shenango Coke Works closed

Air quality advocates near Neville Island believe more air monitors are needed to address its pollution problems. In the meantime, they are trying to pressure Metalico, a metal recycling facility where a large fire recently broke out, to change its practices.

Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource
Metalico, a metal recycling facility on Neville Island.

By Oliver Morrison, PublicSource and Jamie Wiggan, Gazette 2.0

Kristine Pace was packing a bag to care for her injured father on April 14 when she smelled burning plastic and began frantically searching her Emsworth home to see what had caught fire.

Melanie Holcomb was walking her dogs nearby when she noticed a stench so intense that she saw a driver pull over to see if the engine had caught fire. Neighbors wandered onto their porches. When a cloud of black smoke drifted across the Ohio River and into view, Holcomb said, she hurried home.

A large industrial fire had erupted at Metalico, a metal recycling facility on Neville Island.

Holcomb, the mayor of neighboring Ben Avon, wanted to know what she should tell her residents about the health risk as worries circulated on social media. But she couldn’t get a clear answer. Emsworth resident Angela Garcia and her son got headaches and escaped for dinner. At least four families spent the night away from home.

According to 12 nearby residents interviewed for this story, the April 14 fire is just the most blatant recent example of the frequent pollution that plagues the area around Neville Island, including several vulnerable communities like McKees Rocks and Stowe. Sonią Kowal said she thought the pollution outside her Emsworth home would improve after the Shenango Coke Works closed at the end of 2015. But the smell didn’t go away and, in fact, the screeching sound of crunching metal and occasional explosions she hears across the river from Metalico, only seemed to get worse.

Metalico says it abides by regulations and, when it has been fined for violations, it has made subsequent changes and improvements.

Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource
Marisa Haney walks her dogs Sarah and Molly in a stroller down Grand Avenue on Neville Island, where she has lived for 11 years. 

Officially, the air quality near Neville Island meets the long-term air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]. But some residents say there are still days when the air quality is so bad they have to close their windows and stay inside.

The Allegheny County Health Department’s ability to enforce EPA air quality violations is limited by the nine official monitors it uses to measure air quality. Only one, in Avalon, is dedicated to recording the pollution downwind from Neville Island.

For several hours after the April 14 fire started, the Avalon monitor recorded ordinary levels of pollution, even as a video camera in Kowal’s backyard showed a tower of billowing black smoke. By 7 p.m., the smoke and steam captured by the camera was so thick it was impossible to see anything but the very top of the hills in the distance. At 9 p.m. the official Avalon monitor finally showed a small spike of dirty particulate that was about 90% above its long-term average.

By contrast, there were four unofficial air quality monitors nearby, owned by citizens and Carnegie Mellon, which showed spikes in carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds among the highest those monitors had ever recorded. Carnegie Mellon’s monitor right across the river detected spikes of particulate between 3,000% to 8,000% above the long-term average over several hours, the highest level ever recorded. The EPA’s monitors don’t measure volatile organic compounds, including benzene, a known carcinogen.

According to the official monitor, it was a mild pollution event; according to the citizens’ monitors, it was some of the worst pollution in recent memory. And this discrepancy — according to nearby residents, academics and environmental groups — is a problem.

Image provided by the Allegheny County Health Department in a records request response to PublicSource.
The view of a Carnegie Mellon air monitor and camera in Emsworth during an April 14 fire at Metalico. 

More air monitors now

Allegheny County Clean Air Now [ACCAN], a group of residents who have been trying to reduce air pollution near Neville Island since 2014, is asking the health department to install additional air monitors that will capture shorter pollution events, like the fire, which the official monitors don’t fully capture.

This problem isn’t unique to Neville Island, as EPA air monitors across the nation have routinely missed toxic pollution events that have left individuals hospitalized. In 2019, a refinery explosion in Philadelphia released nearly 700,000 pounds of toxic chemicals but the nearby air monitors reported one of the healthiest air quality days of the year.

In addition to Metalico, ACCAN has identified 26 other polluters within the local airshed, including Neville Chemical, Neville Island Terminals and Lindy Paving, Inc. These sites and others form a tight chain of industry stretching across portions of McKees Rocks, Stowe, Coraopolis and Robinson. ACCAN members say the health department has expanded its air quality network in the Mon Valley, which is proof that more can be done.