Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Air That We Breathe

Do Things go better without coke in the air?

First you say you will and then you won’t: Anybody who has ever ridden the Kennywood Jackrabbit or Racer or any other roller coaster knows what the ups and downs do to one’s stomach. Similar ups and downs by U.S. Steel executives must be keeping Clairton residents in a state of constant Maalox moments. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the thundering hoof-beats of the great steel producers wafted through the Clairton foothills. Such were the noises of the greatest coke producing mill of all time – the Clairton Works.

But then, what I call the great salami tragedy occurred. You see, just as nobody notices when a single slice is missing from the entire salami, so did nobody notice the little events that would cause the demise of the steel industry. The U.S. helped Japan and Europe get on their feet economically (slice, slice). Japan and Europe began to produce steel (slice, slice). Their plants were newer (slice), their labor was cheaper (slice). U.S. Steelmakers shared their steelmaking technology with foreign companies (slice). U.S. steel continued to use old style open hearth furnaces (slice) while Japan used modern oxygen furnaces (slice). Japan developed continuous casting (slice) ten years ahead of the U.S. and introduced computers years before U.S. steel makers (slice). U.S. steelmakers were arrogant and refused to accept the fact that they were falling behind (slice, slice, slice) and in the 1980s, the salami, along with U.S. Steel production disappeared from the Mon Valley.

Fast forward a couple of decades: U.S. Steel Corporation a couple of years ago announced a $1.1 billion Clairton Coke Works rehabilitation project. The project would reduce air pollution significantly and jobs would be created. It was a boon to the community that had languished for decades due to the near fatal blows to the steel industry. The community breathed a collective sigh and many jumped for joy. Finally, FINALLY, something positive would change the Clairton Works reputation for emitting the third and fourth ranked most unhealthy air in the country. But the happy times were short lived. Within months U.S. Steel placed the plans for upgrading the mill on hold. Since that connection two tragedies that resulted in death and nationwide news coverage of the Clairton Works occurred. Perhaps those events pressured the powers that be into re-adjusting their plans, or maybe it was coincidence. Regardless, the Allegheny County Health Department recently announced plans to move ahead with an even grander plan.

Return to a time when air was clean and sex was dirty: In a memo of understanding, U.S. Steel agreed to cut the plant's particulate emissions by at least 320 tons, or 70 percent. Such a drastic reduction exceeds the requirements of original plan agreed upon two years ago. The project’s scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013.

Within three years that stinking, sickly air that blankets the Liberty-Clairton area in violation of national air quality standard for fine particulate pollution will be scrubbed, filtered, and spewed out in a healthier manner – so say the High Mucky Mucks who currently mucky-muck the air.

The U.S. Steel plan is to reduce the emissions by replacing two coke quenching towers with low-emission quenching towers, and by bringing three old coke batteries into compliance. Thus they will not need to be shut down. The two new quenching towers are projected to reduce more emissions than replacing the three coke batteries and will be cheaper than building new batteries.

The plan includes a shutdown three of its oldest batteries in 2012 and replacement of the quenching tower with the low-emission quenching tower. The current plan will meet the federal Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards, unlike the original one. This time residents of Clairton and surrounding communities are holding their breath in hopes that they will not have to continue holding their noses.

No known connection: In the old days miners used to take a canary with them into the mine. When the canary croaked it was an indication that the air was bad enough to vamoose. Perhaps the bad Clairton air finally reached up the hill to the Blue Bird. Former Clairton Ralph Posmoga recently returned from a visit to our old hometown and tells us that one more Clairton icon has disappeared from St. Clair Avenue. According to Ralph, the Blue Bird Restaurant has packed up all its cares and woe and there they go, there they go… Bye, Bye, Blue Bird. But for those not averse to swimming across the Monongahela, or perhaps driving across the Elizabeth Bridge, Al Barna tells Ralph that the Blue Bird has not flown the coop any farther than downtown Elizabeth.

Ribbit… ribbit…ribbit: It started over a century ago. A group of African American men from Clairton and surrounding communities formed a social group. They called themselves FROGS, an acronym for FRIENDLY RIVALRY OFTEN GENERATES SUCCESS. Each summer the group celebrates FROGS week and gets together for fun and camaraderie. The organization has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, and social changes. Members have been leaders who include a baseball team owner, doctors, dentists, lawyers, newspaper owners, entrepreneurs and even Steeler players. The club’s charter limits membership to 60 and today’s members range in age from 28 to 92. Just one of the many activities of Clairtonians that seems to receive little notice. Bravo.

A little blogging music Maestro... Barry Manulow singing “Heart of Steel.”

Dr. Forgot

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