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Air advocates have been targeting a Neville Island metal recycler for years. Now the authorities have intervened

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Air quality advocates have been working for several years to get regulators to take action to stop a Neville Island scrap recycler from sending air pollution into the community. Earlier this month, that is exactly what the United States Environmental Protection Agency did.

On October 4, the EPA sent Metalico Pittsburgh, Inc. a notice of violation for violating federal, state and local air quality regulations. The agency’s letter to the company says, based on the agency’s calculations, that Metalico has the potential to emit at least 50 tonnes per year of volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

This would make the facility a major source of VOCs and in violation of county air pollution rules and the Clean Air Act to operate without a so-called “Title V” permit, and without the proper approvals during its construction. in 2004.

The EPA based its calculations on emissions data from other similar-sized metal recyclers equipped with shredders and on the ability of Metalico’s equipment to shred flattened cars, appliances and steel.

Metalico currently has a minor source operating license from the Allegheny County Health Department. Being a major source of air pollution would subject Metalico to more stringent requirements, including possible pollution controls.

Metalico’s website says it can recycle 6,000 cars a month at its Neville Island plant located a few miles down the Ohio River from the city of Pittsburgh. The company operates 21 other scrap metal recycling facilities in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York State. The factory is operated by the Chinese company Ye Chiu Metal Recycling.

The EPA also issued violations for emissions visible from the plant for three days in 2021, using camera footage taken by Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), an advocacy group.

ACCAN’s Angelo Taranto praised the action. “These issues have been going on for quite a long time, so we’re delighted that a regulator is looking at all the documentation we’ve gathered and actually using it to identify violations,” he said.

Lawyers have worried about Metalico for years

ACCAN has been monitoring Metalico for several years for air quality issues. By far the worst air pollution event came on April 14, 2021, when a major fire broke out at his facility, which blanketed the surrounding community in thick black smoke.

Firefighters from several services were called to the scene. They had to transport tankers to extinguish the flaming heap of scrap metal.

Sonia Kowal’s home in Emsworth is among those affected. It sits on a bluff above the Ohio River, across from Metalico. The plant can be seen from its garden.

“As the wind picked up, the smoke got very thick and started to blow across the river,” Kowal recalls. “It was so thick you couldn’t see Neville Island. I couldn’t even see the river. It was so thick.

In 2018, ACCAN, with help from Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE lab, installed an air quality camera and monitor in Kowal’s yard. Taranto describes the video from the night of April 14.

“So it’s shortly after the fire starts, you can see all the smoke blowing right at Sonia’s house. Just horrible emissions,” he said.

During the fire, ACCAN’s monitor showed extremely high levels of dangerous fine particles known as PM 2.5, between 3,000% and 8,000% above the long-term average – the highest level ever recorded. But the EPA-approved monitor used by the Allegheny County Health Department two miles downwind showed only a small peak of PM 2.5, and not until 9 p.m., more than 5. hours after the start of the fire.

The health department, which regulates air quality in the county, declined an interview. In an email, spokesperson Chris Tognari said as the cause of the fire is still under investigation, no enforcement action can be taken.

Metalico had another fire at its plant in Neville Island on May 22 and another on August 24 at its plant in Bradford, Pa.

The noise and smells of the plant

Metallico has been a nuisance to Kowal and its neighbors for much longer than the fires.

Since ACCAN installed the monitor and camera in 2018, they have documented over 300 explosions, bad smells, and noise and pollution events related to Metalico and shared them with the health department. But the agency said it couldn’t base enforcement measures on citizens’ air monitors. Since 2018, he has fined Metalico a total of $ 19,650 for visible emissions and “reporting disturbed conditions.”

This does not suit Kowal. When she bought her two-story house on Cape Cod 10 years ago, she said she didn’t register to live next to an industrial site.

“I once spoke to someone in Neville Township, they told me that if I didn’t want to live in an industrial area, I shouldn’t have moved to an industrial area. And I’m like, ‘I didn’t – I’m in Emsworth.’ We are residential, and I thought there were laws prohibiting certain odors and emissions from crossing their property line.

The sound of Metalico also crosses the river. So Kowal started recording shortly after moving in. She describes the sound of the factory as a high speed head-on collision “happening every 30 seconds right outside your window”.

And, she says, once or twice a month barges arrive at Metalico to load up scrap.

They drop heavy metal from two to three floors into a metal barge, ”she said. “The noise will last all day, every five minutes. “

Kowal says Metalico works late at night and on weekends. Neville Island’s industrial zoning does not limit its hours of operation.

But for Kowal, what’s even worse is the smell. “It’s just that heavy, heavy smell of burnt plastic, like you throw an old stereo in a trash can and burn it,” she said. “And then there’s a smell that I might describe as turpentine.” It’s kind of a sweet smell.

Metalico declined to comment for this story. According to a report from PublicSource, the company says it is following the regulations and, when fined, it made changes and improvements.

Its operating license from the Department of Health says the company is supposed to make “all reasonable efforts” to ensure cars have been stripped of potentially dangerous components – like fuel tanks and tires – before shredding them.

Because of the smells, Kowal wonders if the company is doing all it can. “I mean, if you think about it, these are parts of a car,” she said. “You have all the plastic, you have the padding, everything. What are we breathing? ”

Regulatory action

ACCAN Taranto wants the Ministry of Health to do more. “The community felt ignored by local authorities because they would send complaint after complaint detailing the horrific pollution to which they were subjected and they saw no effective action being taken,” he said. .

In an email, the health ministry said it should “follow federal and state laws with respect to any case for which enforcement action may be appropriate.” These are actions that take time, and CDHA and EPA want to make sure these are the right plans of action. “

The EPA’s involvement with Metalico began three years ago, with an inspection of the facility on August 8, 2018. The agency’s last action was to send the notice of violation and advisability. to confer on Metalico earlier this month. The company has 30 days to respond and can provide the agency with additional information.

Hazardous air emissions

Neither the Department of Health nor the EPA would comment on the violations, but the EPA is taking a closer look at the scrap metal recycling industry.

This summer, the EPA issued an application alert for more than 250 facilities across the country that shred metal like Metalico. The agency said they could be in violation of the Clean Air Act.

The alert indicates that the process of shredding and crushing scrap metal can vaporize materials such as plastics, paints, sealants, rubber and fluids. Installations can then generate not only VOCs, but also dangerous air pollutants such as lead, zinc, cadmium, mercury and organic pollutants.

“These facilities are often located in densely populated areas – non-compliant shredders can impact overloaded communities,” the alert said.

A May 2020 study looked at emissions from metal recyclers in Houston. Its author, Elaine Symanski, studies air pollution at Baylor College of Medicine. “Our study actually arose out of concerns expressed by residents,” she said.

The study found that not only is the crushing and shredding of old cars and appliances a source of air pollution, but the torch cutting of metal is also of greatest concern. Metalico also does torch cutting, according to its license.

“Torch cutting has the potential to generate smaller particles that contain metals, and these, of course, can be transported as scrap metal to neighboring communities,” she said.

His team used air quality monitors to measure vaporized metals, some of which are known carcinogens.

“The metals we detected in the air samples included iron, nickel, total chromium, manganese and lead,” she explained.

They then performed risk assessments for both cancerous and non-cancerous parameters and found that the risk of cancer was higher in the neighborhoods closest to the recyclers. After the results were released, the Houston Health Department worked with industry and environmental groups to create a public health action plan.

Hope for the community

ACCAN is pleased that the EPA used its camera footage in the decision to issue the Notice of Violation for Metalico’s visible broadcasts.

“We are really delighted that after reviewing the documentation they are taking action, and we hope this action will bring relief to the community,” Taranto said. “We don’t know how all of this will play out, but it’s very encouraging.”

Taranto would have liked the EPA to do something about the April and May fire emissions. So while this action by the EPA shows progress, it is by no means a resolution of these two egregious episodes that have harmed residents, ”he said.

Overall, he’s hoping ACCAN’s camera and air monitors, along with complaints from residents like Kowal and his neighbors, will bring more attention to what’s going on in Metalico.

As for Sonia Kowal, she is fed up with being told that she has to move every time she files a complaint.

“I shouldn’t have to move,” she said. “It’s such a populated area, and then having a business like that, it’s crazy.”

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