Carnegie Mellon University
November 16, 2015

Shenango Channel Provides Online Resource For Sharing Images, Data About Coke Plant

What’s That Smell? CMU Technology Helps Find Sources

By Byron Spice / 412-268-9068 /
Shenango Channel

Citizens and government officials are using a new online resource, the Shenango Channel, that uses Carnegie Mellon University computer technology to share, compile and analyze images and air quality data related to a coke plant on Allegheny County’s Neville Island.

Two cameras — one in the attic of a nearby residence, another operated by the Allegheny County Health Department — take images 24 hours a day of DTE Energy’s Shenango Inc. plant that can be accessed via a website. Shenango operates 56 ovens that turn coal into metallurgical coke and other byproducts.

The Shenango Channel compiles and displays air quality data collected by a county air pollution monitor as well as a network of CMU-developed air particulate monitors operated by neighbors, as well as “smell reports” submitted by area residents.

“Now we can go back in time to validate and verify things we can smell,” said Thaddeus Popovich, a co-founder of Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) and a resident of Ben Avon, a community neighboring Neville Island. Users of the Shenango Channel can check images and monitor readings that occurred minutes or hours before smoke or a smell wafts through their community, looking for clues as to the cause. Popovich said ACCAN members have been surprised by the number of problematic emissions they see via the channel, often multiple times a day.

“Now we can go back in time to validate and verify things we can smell.” — Thaddeus Popovich

One notable event occurred June 11, when a fisherman on the Ohio River noticed unusual smoke and a flare and notified ACCAN. By checking the website, ACCAN members found images of the flares and smoke releases, which coincided with a power outage at the plant. The county Health Department subsequently investigated and found evidence of three additional incidents involving power outages and the venting of raw coke oven gas. As a result, the plant was cited for four violations of county air pollution regulations.

“The June 11 event was a great example of how the Shenango Channel pulls all of these resources together,” said Paul Dille, a programmer in the CMU Robotics Institute’s CREATE Lab.

Shenango Channel is an offshoot of the CREATE Lab’s Breathe Cam, a system of four cameras that keep an eye on the air over Pittsburgh 24 hours a day. The public can access those images online as part of the Heinz Endowment’s Breathe Project. To create the Shenango Channel, the computer architecture has been extended to collect images from third-party cameras and to gather text and numerical data. Dille said the system eventually may collect sounds and audio reports as well.

Randy Sargent, a senior systems scientist, said the CREATE Lab already has received requests from community groups that are interested in establishing similar online channels for other industrial hot spots and gas fracking drill sites. Now that the computer infrastructure is in place, it will be relatively easy to establish additional channels, Dille said.

“The hardest part is finding a place for a camera that has power, Internet connections and a good view,” he added.

Popovich said sites such as the Shenango Channel can subject pollution sources to greater scrutiny by the public and regulators. Even though the Shenango plant is subject to Health Department inspections, those typically don’t occur on nights and weekends, he noted. The cameras tied into the Shenango Channel, however, provide 24-hour coverage.

Read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s coverage of the Shenango Channel.