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Shenango, residents discuss concerns

Thursday, November 08, 2001

By Jane Miller

Ellen Benedetto of Ben Avon has been to plenty of public hearings to complain about smells and chemical releases from factories on Neville Island.

Usually, everyone else in the audience is there for the same reason.

On Oct. 29, though, the audience of about 60 was split between residents who breathe the industrial emissions and employees of Shenango Inc. who try to control them.

"This is the first real dialogue," said Myron Arnowitt, the Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, who was on a panel co-chaired by Allegheny County Councilman Ron Francis and Avalon Mayor Dan Bricmont. Also attending were representatives of Shenango's coke plant, the Neville Island Good Neighbor Committee and the Allegheny County Health Department.

Francis and Colleen Williston of the good neighbor committee called for resolutions that acknowledge the need for economic vitality as well as a healthful environment.

Shenango Inc., of Terre Haute, Ind., is under a federal consent decree to clean up sulfur emissions but continues to struggle to stay in compliance. It also continues to draw complaints from neighbors on both sides of the Ohio River.

Jim Birsic, Shenango's vice president for health, safety, environment and law, told the audience that a coke production plant has been on Neville Island for nearly 100 years. Shenango has owned the facility for the past 20 years and estimates it has spent $10 million in 10 years to improve the desulfurization process, which causes a rotten egg smell.

"We're operating the plant so well, it causes other problems. The quality of waste water was overwhelming the water treatment plant," Birsic said. "But don't tell Myron."

The audience chuckled. "Oh, we know about that already," Arnowitt said.

The comments helped set the tone for two hours of friendly but pointed questions and comments from both sides of the air pollution issue.

Birsic and Nick Buchko, also from Shenango, presented charts and graphs that indicated that on most days the plant emits toxins within the levels allowed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. They acknowledged that occasional breakdowns occur. Some last less than two minutes but still count as a day out of compliance.

From Oct. 1, 2000, to Sept. 30, 2001, the plant was cited for 145 daily violations out of the 365 days.

"How does that ... affect an unborn child?" questioned Nancy Niemczyk, a midwife from the Midwife Center for Birth & Women's Health on the North Side.

She came because of concerns that the miscarriage rate may be higher in the areas surrounding Neville Island than in other areas. There have been no studies to confirm this.

Roger Westman, manager of the Air Quality Program for the Health Department, encouraged residents to call the department when they detect industrial smells. "You are our eyes and ears when we can't be there," he said.

Some Shenango workers felt that Shenango is blamed for chemical emissions from the other plants on Neville Island. Shenango tends to be the most visible, with its around-the-clock white cloud of smoke.

Ron Snyder, a Shenango employee for 28 1/2 years, said his health record should speak for itself. "I've got a clean bill of health from my doctor. I don't have [tuberculosis]. My lungs are clear," he said.

Westman responded that Shenango workers wear protective masks when working around hazardous materials. "There are people in the communities who are elderly or have respiratory diseases. Our job at the Health Department is to reduce this risk," he said.

Jane Miller is a free-lance writer.

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