Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Low-Tech 'Art' Is First Defense in Battle against Air Pollution

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Low-Tech 'Art' Is First Defense in Battle against Air Pollution

Article excerpt

Some people call him "the smokemaster."

Vern Irwin travels around Pennsylvania and surrounding states in a one-of-a-kind pickup truck. A tall smokestack juts off the back of the truck bed.

Irwin and his partner, Margaret Gearhart, man a command center in the cab of the truck to produce black smoke and white smoke and send it up the stack into the sky.

They are paid money to do this.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, 68 people traveled to the Penn State McKeesport campus. They stood around in a parking lot for several hours getting soaked with rain, sleet and occasional snow. They watched the smoke. They "read" the smoke. And then they were tested. Everyone passed the test, making each of them a certified "smoke reader".

The shiny year-old 4X4 is Penn State blue, sprinkled with lion paw prints. Lettering on the door announces that the truck is from the Visible Emissions Training Program Smoke School.

Smoke reading is very "low tech." It is more art than science, concedes Irwin, who has been reading smoke and teaching smoke reading for Penn State since 1978.

Turns out that smoke reading is the first line of defense in the battle against air pollution. State and federal agencies employ smoke readers to enforce environmental regulations. And companies that produce smoke, i.e. visible emissions, have employees reading smoke to help them comply with regulations.

Smoke readers aren't looking at the color of the smoke. They are checking the "opacity," Irwin said.

"We look through the smoke and see what's behind it," said Donald Fry, one of the students at last week's smoke reading school in McKeesport.

There is monitoring and metering equipment that can evaluate visible emissions, but that equipment is expensive and most companies don't own it, Irwin said.

Smoke reading is "sort of prehistoric," said Fry, who has been reading smoke for nine years. He's a maintenance attendant at Koppel Steel, five miles north of Beaver Falls. Koppel sent six employees to the seminar. …

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