Friday, June 6, 2008

Airy, Ain't It?

“Welcome to Clairton, City of Prayer”

So says the sign that welcomes visitors and residents into the city limits of my hometown. The area along the Monongahela River was first surveyed in 1769, became a borough in 1903, and was incorporated as a city in 1922. The city was mostly lazy and rural until Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Charles Schwab, and Elbert Gary formed U. S. Steel Corporation and decided that Clairton would be the ideal place for a coke works.

There are three kinds of coke – the liquid of soda fountains that tingles the nose, the illegal drug snorted up the nose, and the component that offends the nose and is a fuel and additive used to make steel. Coke is produced by baking coal in large brick-lined ovens void of oxygen to eliminate impurities. The making of coke is perhaps the dirtiest part of steelmaking. It produces so much pollutant that I remember when growing up, a newly-shingled house was always prominent as the shingles were brightly colored green, red, blue, or other colors. But within months the same roof shingles would be black, just like the rest of the homes in the neighborhood. Such was one phenomenon of growing up in the coke capital of the world.

The Robert De Niro movie, “The Deer Hunter” was set in Clairton and captured the culture of the people and the steel mills and coke works in the 1978 movie. The cost of prosperity however was dirty, unhealthy air. Particularly acrid was the stench of residue called quencher; airborne emissions of pollutants and particles. When hot, baked coke is “pushed” from ovens it is “quenched” or cooled with water, the result is an acrid odor that makes the eyes water and causes one to gasp for air.

The economy of Clairton and the entire steel valley was devastated when most of the mills closed in the 1980s but the Clairton Coke Works continues to operate using coke oven batteries built in the early 1950s. The air looks cleaner but Clairton got a black eye recently when an American Lung Association report named it the sootiest metropolitan area in the country. “We’re Number 1!”

Unlike the diehard smoker whose refrain is, “I been smokin’ all my life and I ain’t dead yet,” U.S. Steel has proposed a $ 1 billion coke oven battery replacement and maintenance plan designed to literally and figuratively remove the black cloud from Clairton’s reputation. The new technology that will be used was developed in Europe and is designed to draw gasses in and capturing them instead of emitting them. U.S. Steel says that the new batteries will cut emissions by more than half.

If the U.S. Steel plan works Clairton could return to the days when the air was clean and sex was dirty.

A little blogging music Maestro... “The Air that I Breathe” by The Hollies.

Dr. Forgot

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Andy--From Buzz Mills, a person in my graduating class - M.A. Crans

Dr. Forgot did a great job, but he left ourt the part about, when the coal is cooked, the distillates include napthalene, toluene, benezene, literally a plethora of carcinogenics, which were captured within the Benzoil plant. If I'm correct coke is burned to produce the high heat needed to smelt stell, I always thought quencher, was from the chemicals, and water used to quench the hot steel. He could have also mentioned the "blast furnaces." I can remember sitting in the hillsides, past the upper end of Miller Avene and watching the enormous smoke stacks belch smoke in a myriad of colors, even purple, green, and orange. My sinuses were ruined at an early age, and they are still in the process of healing.

Great hearing from you, and Dr. Forgot...Thanks