Kids can't wait for clean air

The Shenango Coke Works must address neighbors' concerns
March 7, 2012 6:59 am

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Most schools in our region are concerned with their kids' test scores, sports schedules and play dates. But for myself and an awful lot of other parents in the Northgate School District, we're more worried about whether our children will need an inhaler to breathe tomorrow.

The most recent data collected by the Pennsylvania Department of Health found that close to 38 percent of Northgate School District students suffered from asthma in 2008-09, the highest rate of any school district in southwestern Pennsylvania. Our district's asthmatic rate is more than triple the national and state average of 11 percent.

It is no coincidence that Avalon and Bellevue recorded the dirtiest air in Allegheny County last year. Being located just downwind from the Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island, our North Boros kids and their teachers can smell the distinctive odor of the coke ovens on the playground at recess.

What is mysterious is why Shenango Coke Works has been ignoring our requests to come out from behind their closed plant gates to hear our concerns from across the river.

Last month, I was part of a small group of Neville Island community members who took our concerns directly to the gates of the Shenango plant. We brought a letter that voiced our concerns and raised questions about the number of air pollution violations recorded at the plant -- 114 in total and $114,000 in fines from the Allegheny County Health Department.

After we waited 30 minutes at the plant entrance, the manager finally appeared, took the letter and disappeared back into the facility after promising to set up a meeting when the "timing is better."

Several days later, I was one of a small group of community residents, borough council members and local school officials summoned to Shenango for an "invitation only" tour of the plant. We were also treated to a slide show presentation by plant management and executives from DTE, Shenango's Detroit-based parent company, which downplayed the plant's dangerous emissions and tried to present the company as a good corporate citizen.

While we appreciated the opportunity for a few of us to hear the company's side of the story, we remain disappointed that Shenango has not yet responded to our original request for a meeting that's open to the public -- so the whole community can air the other side of the story.

As a parent in the Northgate School District, I see the health effects of Shenango's air pollution firsthand among my children's friends and their families. Too many of our kids are spending time in the overcrowded nurse's office where students go for their daily asthma treatments instead of in their classrooms. Without seeing it day-to-day in our schools, it is hard to understand just how much these health issues are affecting our community.

It's time for Shenango management to come out from behind their PR smokescreen to see these impacts for themselves and to hear firsthand the stories of families like ours who are most affected by the coke plant's emissions.

Air pollution caused by the coke oven operations at Shenango may not be the sole reason our communities struggle to breathe, but it is one of the problems that we can do something about.

The children attending Northgate School District don't have time to wait on a settlement between Shenango and the Allegheny County Health Department. The "timing" couldn't be better than it is right now: We are renewing our invitation to Shenango to come to our community and meet with us soon to help find solutions that will let our kids -- and us parents -- breathe easier.

Management guru Stephen Covey says, "You can't talk your way out of what you've behaved yourself into." What we're asking for is very simple -- our community is asking company executives to take responsibility and acknowledge the alarming rate of asthma and health concerns in this community. Just meeting the standards is not good enough when it comes to the health of our children.

At some point, Shenango managers can't hide behind controlled presentations and closed-door meetings anymore. They need to show their faces in our neighborhood, listen to the overwhelming health concerns from our community and demonstrate their willingness to respond. At that point, we can start to work together toward changes that will really begin to clear the air for our kids and our families.

Bill Bartlett, the father of a 7-year-old, lives in Bellevue (bill.l.bartlett@gmail.com).
First Published 2012-03-07 06:00:39

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