As someone who spent 20 years working in steel operations, I can tell you with absolute certainty that a coke plant is one of the most difficult operations to run well. Even the best and newest facility produces some of the worst known pollutants and carcinogens. In Pittsburgh, we live between two large coke batteries, the Shenango works on Neville Island and U.S. Steel’s Clairton plant in the Mon Valley, and our air quality pays a high price for those plants.
I used to drive my son from Squirrel Hill to West Elizabeth to visit a friend of his from school, and the physical impact of driving deep into the Mon Valley was very dramatic. Within minutes, I had a scratchy throat and my eyes would water if I stayed in the area for more than a few minutes. Scary part of this is that our throats and lungs have protection mechanisms built in to them that react to pollutants when exposed. Unfortunately, when you live with air that attacks your respiratory system day after day, those defense mechanisms get overwhelmed and stop trying to expel the stuff collecting in your throat and lungs.
Pittsburgh’s air quality ranks very low, and I am sure that two large coke operations have a lot to do with that. The people living downwind of these plants need to know that they have been living in a very destructive environment and it isn’t likely to get better soon.
My large, extended family’s first generation grew up mostly in West Aliquippa, which sat literally in the shadow of the giant Jones & Laughlin works. The litany of diseases they experienced are to be expected if you live virtually inside a giant chemical processor, but the people living out of sight from these coke plants didn’t sign on for the risks my aunts and uncles did.
If I lived downwind of either of these coke plants, I would keep my windows closed, buy the best air conditioner and air cleaners available and never let my children play outside. That is the reality of our steel legacy.