Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Hey Buddy, Do you have anything to stop this coughin’?

An old but timely joke: The Pittsburgh Steelers are so named because of the steel mills that lined the rivers of the area. For the better part of the twentieth century black smoke residue from the mills belched into the sky and fell back onto the earth changing everything to a soot color. Even the snow turned a sooty color shortly after it hit the ground. Greenery that surrounded the rich fertile area had a fine black covering. Roofs of houses were all the same color – black within several weeks after colorful shingles were attached. Boston writer James Parton dubbed Pittsburgh “Hell with the lid off.” The acrid air was difficult to breathe but the mills were our livelihood.

What happens to those who don’t make it: There is an old joke about a man who worked in the Clairton Coke Works, a mill along the Monongahela River that provided coke from coal. Coke is a crucial ingredient in the making of steel. Gasses emitted in the process of baking the coke are particularly pungent. As the story goes the old Italian immigrant died from inhaling too much of the residue for too long. As the hearse was just getting to the top of Maple Avenue, one of the steeper hills in Clairton, the back of the hearse popped open and the casket fell out onto the street and began sliding down the long hill. Cars from the funeral procession swerved to miss the out-of-control casket and others honked at the traffic disarray, but the coffin continued down the steep hill going ever faster. At the bottom of the hill the hearse jumped a curb, crashed through the front window of a pharmacy, and came to rest in front of the startled druggist. The lid popped open and the corpse sat up and said, “Hey Buddy, you gotta anythin’ to a stop this coffin?”

The more things change the more they stay the same: Much has changed in the Greater Pittsburgh area since that joke was first told. The 1980s saw the decline of the steel industry in general and of United States Steel in particular. Steel mills up and down the rivers have closed. Homestead, McKeesport, Dravosburg, Munhall, and many more towns have been impacted by having their lifeblood eliminated. Few mills still operate outside the Clairton Works. But most Clairton residents worked in other neighboring mills, since closed, and most Clairton Works workers live outside Clairton city limits, so economic hardships have struck Clairton just as it has its neighbors. But at least the Clairton Works is operational, right? And that is a good thing, right? Well, yes and maybe.

A billion dollar boost: Last year U.S. Steel announced a $1 billion investment in Clairton Works to reduce air pollution by nearly 1,400 tons per year. The Allegheny Health Department fast-tracked U.S. Steel’s 310-page permit application to replace three old batteries which contain 192 ovens that produce coke, with new cleaner batteries containing only 84 ovens. County officials anticipated the permit would be issued within six months. The battery replacement was a core part of the $1+ billion investment in Clairton Works. Things were looking up for the area.

A billion dollar bust: Several weeks ago a follow-up announcement was made to delay the highly-touted plan to invest more than $1 billion in new coke batteries and refurbishment of older ones. U.S. Steel idled three of its 12 batteries and announced plans to idle another four soon. They blamed the global recession and projected layoffs include 230 of the plant’s 1,155 workers. The original plan for replacement and refurbishment was designed to reduce air pollution but some say the closure of the batteries will serve the same purpose. The upgrades were necessary to reduce pollution in Clairton, Glassport, and surrounding areas. Pollution readings from the area have prompted the American Lung Association to consistently rank the Pittsburgh area one of the sootiest in the nation.

My favorite dentist: Blog reader, dentist, doo-wop junkie and sometime skydiver Dr. Ron, who years ago made his assistant Adele an honest woman, forwarded the latest “State of the Smog” report from Clairton. The Clairton High School Bears football team was able to shout “We’re number 1” last season, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clairton-Glassport duo ranks third and fourth respectively in risks of getting cancer from bad air. Out on the left coast the greater Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos lies between two major freeways and ranks #1 with 1,200 toxics per million in their air – and that is even before all the pot smokers show up for Michael’s funeral. Madison County, IL, near St. Louis, ranks second with 1,000 toxics per million, Clairton is third at 762 per million, and across the river, Glassport comes in at fourth with 700 toxics per million. That means breathing in Clairton and Glassport increases the risk of cancer by 20 times over the average American who inhales about 35 toxics per million. The only sure solution to avoid the health issues in these areas is the same advice I give smokers... try not to inhale, and do not exhale.

Over my shoulder a backward glance: From the Clairton Progress February 21, 1939 edition, courtesy of Jim Hartman at the Mifflin Township Historical Society comes the news of a new housing development called “Colonial Village.” Seventy homes have been sold and half are already occupied. Homes in Colonial Village started at $3,990 with $513.36 down and monthly payments of $23.83. Features include 50X100 foot lots, all hardwood floors, concealed radiators, and a modern porcelain sink with spray attachment. Families who have already moved in include Hafner, 613 Grandview, Blackburn, 105 Constitution Circle, Cooley, 558 Independence Drive, Elkovitz, 262 Shaw Avenue, Phillips, 874 Craig Street, Taylor, 861 Bessemer Avenue, Wiley, 600 Lafayette Drive, Shreck, 544 Thompson Drive, and Fedor, 506 Independence Drive. Times seem simpler then. Patriotism was paramount as evidenced by some of the street names. Perhaps we should take a lesson from history and support our president and country instead of taking daily pot shots.

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

Dr. Forgot

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