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TRUST YOUR NOSE: Reports show irritants, toxicants, carcinogens unleashed during leak

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Sources: American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists

National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

National Institute of Health

Environmental Protection Agency


By Jamie Wiggan

Internal records detailing a recent chemical leak at a plant on Neville Island show surrounding residents were exposed to thousands of pounds of irritants, toxicants and carcinogens.

According to company incident reports obtained through Right To Know requests, the Neville Chemical plant released nearly 25,000 pounds of chemical emissions during a two-hour period on the morning of Sept. 2.

These include five compounds known to pose cancer risks to humans or animals and multiple others that bring on headaches, dizziness, itching and coughing when inhaled in small quantities. Almost all the chemicals identified can cause organ damage with prolonged or concentrated exposures.

The biggest single contributor listed - dicyclopentadiene - is designated hazardous by the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals and can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver in large or prolonged doses. Nearly 10,000 pounds were released during the September leak.

“You want to minimize your exposure to these as much as you can,” said Clifford Lau, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Duquesne University who reviewed the breakdown reports. “If you keep getting exposed to this over long periods you could have dire health effects.”

Many sensed something was wrong when they were awoken on the morning of Sept. 2 by an overwhelming synthetic odor that led some in surrounding towns like McKees Rocks and Stowe to call emergency services.

More than 140 complaints filed on CMU’s Smell Pittsburgh app within hours of the incident told of coughs, headaches, dizziness and other symptoms users associated with the cause of the smell. Those affected lived as far upstream as Downtown Pittsburgh and Mount Washington.

Concerns downplayed?

After reviewing the incident reports, local air quality advocates expressed frustration that the risks documented in them were not clearly communicated by the Allegheny County Health Department.

The health department ultimately issued an enforcement order against the plant demanding $62,075 in fines for emissions violations and other related infractions. However, on the day of the incident, the department issued a statement saying it had “no information to indicate the odor would affect any population, sensitive or otherwise.” This message was picked up and relayed by multiple local media outlets.

Representatives of Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) said the statement was “totally irresponsible” given the company’s Title V permit, which allows it to emit hazardous pollutants in controlled amounts.

“These chemicals are irritants, toxins, and carcinogens yet ACHD totally understated the danger and disregarded the potential harm to the health of the communities,” said Karen Grzywinski, ACCAN president and an Ohio Township resident, in responses submitted by email. “ACHD permits them to release hazardous chemicals - they should always err on the side of the safety of the community.”

Chris Togneri, ACHD’s public health information officer, maintains the department’s response was true to the limited data it possessed in the immediate aftermath of the chemical leak.

“The statement we issued was factual and it was based on the information we had,” Togneri said in an email response. “We understand that the public wants information as soon as possible, and we always strive to provide that information, but in emergency situations we must rely on local first responders.”

Togneri said before issuing the statement, “the ACHD monitored everything it could at the time, and there was nothing then to suggest populations were being affected (such as, a spike in medical complaints, for instance, or anything else).” The statement, he noted, “did not rule out” possible health risks the department was then unaware of.

Some environmental advocates pointed out this still doesn’t explain why the health department didn’t issue further communications as more became known.

Patrick Campbell of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) said he appreciated the health department’s ultimate disciplinary action taken but expressed frustration the situation wasn’t better communicated to the public from the time of the incident through to the time of filing.

“It’s unfortunate these [records] had to come about through a Right To Know request,” said Campbell, GASP’s executive director. “We would have liked to see [the health department] out in front of this, letting residents know the kinds of toxins that were emitted into the air, and how the public could react to that.”

Togneri declined to comment more broadly on the incident and its aftermath, citing ongoing legal matters. Since the department filed the enforcement order, Neville Chemical has launched an appeal that’s still pending.

Neville Chemical representatives said the company only belatedly began investigating the incident because the odor identified “wasn’t a typical Neville odor.” The unnamed statement given in response to inquiries for this story said once the chemical company did identify itself as the source, it made immediate communication with county agencies and has since taken steps to stave off repeat incidents.

“We have identified corrective actions necessary to prevent a reoccurrence,” according to the statement. “These corrective actions included immediate, short term and long term process improvements. We apologize once again for the disruption to our nearby communities. Neville Chemical Company is committed to continuing to be a good neighbor and employer.”

More monitoring

ACCAN and GASP representatives both say the Neville Chemical leak illustrates a need for more robust monitoring to inform and protect residents from hazardous air, whatever the source.

As it stands, the health department has one official monitor positioned in Avalon that records air quality downwind of Neville Island. The monitor primarily records levels of fine particulate matter and cannot pick out levels of the specific compounds like naphthalene and styrene emitted by Neville Chemical. The noxious cloud unleashed by the recent leak did not even register on the Avalon monitor, which reported healthy air for the day of Sept. 2.

ACCAN has been campaigning for years to get more monitoring devices to report on air quality in the Neville Island area. More recently, the organization has been pushing for an in-depth investigation akin to the $340,544 air toxics study the health department is currently conducting in the Mon Valley.

In 2015, the department carried out a similar report of the Neville Island region, however,

Angelo Taranto, ACCAN’s secretary, said that was mostly focused around the former Shenango Coke plant that was decommissioned the following year. Taranto said an updated study could be tailored to the current conditions of the Neville Island area to provide a clearer picture of the overall air quality.

“What we are requesting would cover the entire airshed,” he said.

Grzywinski said this kind of investigation could be made to measure levels of the more particular compounds given off during the Neville Chemical leak, as well as other pollutants that might be unique to the Neville Island area.

“It is imperative that the pollution sources and components of the pollution are identified for the health of the residents and to hold industries accountable,” she said. “This facility needs to be monitored and inspected consistently.”

Incognito fumes?

Additional air monitoring may also help detect lower levels of emissions given off more regularly by Neville Chemical and other nearby facilities along the island’s industrial corridor.

In addition to Neville Chemical, ACCAN has identified 26 other polluters within the local airshed, that include another chemical plant, a carbon production facility, a metal scrapper and an asphalt company.

Neville Chemical has a Title V permit that allows it to emit more than 23 tons of volatile organic compounds and more than half a ton of hazardous air pollutants in a year. Reports identified a slightly ajar valve as the cause of the Sept. 2 incident.

ACCAN advocates believe smaller spills may be taking place on a more frequent basis while evading detection from the health department.

“For years residents of communities surrounding Neville Island have complained of odors from Neville Chemical, which are distinctive, irritating, and cause headaches and nausea,” Grzywinski said. “People in the area can readily identify the odors from the plant: We know that the pollution is continuous.”

A marked weather inversion reportedly held the chemical emissions close to the ground during the morning of Sept. 2. An early statement from the health department cited this as the main cause of the wide-reaching odor.

Lau said he thought it was an unusual coincidence for the inversion and the leak to occur simultaneously, and noted that weather patterns can only become a factor if there’s an air quality issue to begin with.

“It wasn’t the inversion that caused the smell, but it did bring to light the possibility that continuous exposure is happening,” he said. Before more recently getting involved in local air quality causes, Lau worked as a research chemist at Bayer for more than 20 years. He stressed he has lots of respect for the industry but gets frustrated when he sees companies putting profit ahead of safety.

“Chemistry does a lot of wonderful things,” he said. “Being a chemist, I’m not against it, but I know it can be done safely, and we need to get the companies to do it more safely."

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