Clairton Cokeworks photo used by permission via Mark Dixon/BlueLens / Flickr</a.

Over the course of 2018, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works facility racked up more than $1.6 million in fines from violations of air quality standards.

2019 may end up being even more expensive.

After a fire at the facility on Dec. 24, air pollution levels spiked across the city, leading to several weeks of unsafe air, especially in the Mon Valley, which already has asthma and cancer rates well above the national average.

While the situation drew new scrutiny to the operations of U.S. Steel, the actions of the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) have also been called into question. Air quality alerts were not released by the ACHD until Jan. 9, a delay that has drawn much criticism.

iPhone screenshot from February 4 by Jennifer Baron.

Now, with public pressure mounting, U.S. Steel is facing challenges from several fronts as both the ACHD and local environmental activists are pursuing legal actions that will tighten regulations on the long-polluting plant.

On Feb. 13, the advocacy groups PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council announced their objective to sue U.S. Steel over continuing noncompliance with the federal Clean Air Act.

Under the act, individuals have the right to take polluters to federal court 60 days after declaring their intention. The two months are meant to give the polluters in question time to address the issue.

“For far too long, the Mon Valley Works has put residents’ health at risk,” says Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s Western Pennsylvania director. “We’re sending a clear message to U.S. Steel and all other polluters: We won’t let you run roughshod over cornerstone environmental laws and put our communities at risk.”

The announcement was cheered by the Allegheny County Health Department.

“We applaud this step and the fact that these residents are using the tools at their disposal to effect change, much like the department has done with the tools available to our agency,” says Ryan Scarpino, public information officer with the Allegheny County Health Department.

In testimony before the Senate and House Democratic Policy Committee on Feb. 6, Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the ACHD, said her office was in the early stages of drafting new emissions standards for ovens like the ones used in Clairton.

“U.S. Steel has hindered our progress by not providing information necessary for completing the regulatory analysis,” said Dr. Hacker. “Despite this, we plan to move forward and engage independent experts to revise the coke oven rules with or without U.S. Steel’s input.”

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Scarpino says, “We look forward to working with all stakeholders to continue advocating for improvement to our air quality on behalf of all of our residents.”

In her testimony, Dr. Hacker outlined several recommendations for new laws at the state level that could prevent future crises, such as updating the criteria for air pollution and giving regulators more power to shutter non-compliant facilities.

Lauren Fraley, Southwest community relations coordinator with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told NEXTpittsburgh that the regulator is aware of the recommendations and is currently in the process of evaluating them.

Despite the local opposition, the facility still has champions across the state. Speaking after a tour of the facility on Friday, Feb. 15, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman described the plant as “critical to the communities,” and praised U.S. Steel’s response to the incident.

“This is a facility that sustained an enormous amount of damage from what was a gigantic fire,” Mr. Fetterman said. It needs to be rebuilt to the highest environmental standards and that’s the commitment.”

“This plant is operating under new, stringent emissions guidelines,” Fetterman told the assembled media. “The environment is a priority, as is the welfare of its workers. It’s done the best anyone could expect.”

U.S. Steel could not be reached for comment last week, but given the company’s ongoing appeals of previous enforcement actions, the legal battles are likely to carry on well into the summer.

“This is not about jobs versus the environment, which is a false choice,” said Christopher Ahlers, an attorney with the Clean Air Council. “The company has the resources to address this problem, having increased its profits by over half a billion dollars in 2018, with the support of federal tariffs.”

The site operates 10 different batteries, which are essentially ovens that cook specific kinds of coal to produce materials used in the manufacturing of steel.

Although air quality all over the Mon Valley has improved considerably since Pittsburgh’s industrial era, experts and residents around the region have been alarmed by air monitors showing increasing levels of carbon and sulfur dioxide in the last decade.

Experts at the ACHD say these increased levels are a direct result of the Clairton Coke Works, which is high on the list of the top 10 polluters in the region.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.