Every five seconds, every hour, every day, the digital camera pointing out of the attic window of Leah Andrascik’s home in Avalon automatically snaps a picture of DTE Energy’s Shenango Coke Works, located across the Ohio River on Neville Island.
And every five seconds another camera, mounted on a wall at Metro Motors on Route 65 in Bellevue by the Allegheny County Health Department, focuses on the coke works and does the same.
Those images are assembled into time-lapse videos and coupled with data from four air quality monitors and maps of the area by the latest Carnegie Mellon University computer technology. This information is then made available on the “Shenango Channel,” a new, public website that provides the best tool yet for monitoring and regulating air pollutants emitted from the embattled coke maker.
“There have been a lot of complaints about Shenango, about the emissions and the smells, but the company denies it’s causing the problems and nothing gets done,” said Ms. Andrascik, who has lived in Avalon for 10 years and has two young sons. “This technology will provide the proof of what’s going on over there.”
The Shenango Channel, is a cooperative project of CMU’s CREATE Lab, the Allegheny County Health Department and Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), a grassroots citizens group that has focused on reducing the coke plant pollution it blames for creating health problems, including high childhood asthma rates, in the nearby municipalities of Bellevue, Avalon, Ben Avon and Avonworth.
Ted Popovich, who lives in Ben Avon and is a co-founder of ACCAN, said the video feed on the Shenango Channel greatly expands the capability of the group to monitor the coke plant operations. An example of that occurred on June 11, when a fisherman on the river noticed smoke and a gas flare at the plant and notified ACCAN.
“We were able to pinpoint that event on the Shenango Channel and point it out to the Health Department, which found three more that coincided with a power outage at the plant,” Mr. Popovich said. “Now we can see it all in one place and that really helps us to increase the awareness of people, who can go to the channel and see what’s happening, see why their eyes are burning and their throats are scratchy.”
The 53-year-old coke works, which has been owned by Detroit-based DTE since 2008, has 56 ovens. The plant produces more than 300 tons annually of metallurgical coke, which is used in making steel. It has a long history of air pollution violations, addressed by federal and county consent orders and fines in 1980, 1993, 2000, 2005, 2012 and 2014.
Ronald Burnette, DTE's director of operations for steel, said in a statement that the company is committed to the environment and the community, and will invest $41 million in the facility in the coming years.
The increased scrutiny is misplaced, he said, saying that the Shenango Channel is the latest example of part of an effort by environmental groups to shut down industry in the region.
“Shenango operates its facility to achieve compliance at all times and moves swiftly when issues arise,” Mr. Burnette said. “Visible emissions from the facility cannot be equated with harm to human health or the environment, which is supported by county-measured air quality in the surrounding area.”
Randy Sargent, a senior systems scientist in the CREATE Lab, said the Shenango Channel empowers residents with an interactive way to access evidence in one location to support what they see or smell.
“What we’re seeing already is that the conversation is moving from allegations and denials — a ‘he said-she said’ situation — to a new thing that provides a lot more certainty and transparency,” he said. “These cameras are showing fugitive emissions from the coking operation and doing so in a powerful way.”
Mr. Sargent said he has had inquiries from other citizen groups about setting up new “channels,” using cameras and air emissions monitors to document air pollution problems at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and its Edgar Thomson steel mill in Braddock. That will likely happen next year, he said.
To tune in to the Shenango Channel go to http://shenangochannel.org.
Don Hopey: email@example.com, 412-263-1983 or on Twitter @donhopey.