Clairton Coke Works. Photo courtesy of Breathe Project. Photo by Mark Dixon / Blue Lens.

In recent weeks, U.S. Steel has completed repairs on the damaged desulfurization systems at the Clairton Coke Works and pledged to spend over $1 billion upgrading their facilities across the Mon Valley Works.

But public outrage over the company’s many environmental violations has not been quieted. Opposition to the plant appears to have only hardened.

On May 3, the Allegheny County Health Department filed a motion to join a class action lawsuit against U.S. Steel that was begun in April by the National Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Clean Air Council and PennEnvironment.

“Our legal counsel determined that collaborating with the citizens’ groups would increase the resources available to the department and allow for the best possible outcome of our enforcement action for public health and impacted residents,” the Health Department announced.

“If the motion to intervene is granted,” they said, “the Health Department will be pursuing remedies and civil penalties through the federal judicial system rather than issuing those unilaterally through an administrative order.”

The current controversy was touched off by the fire in at the Clairton plant in December, but the ongoing legal wrangling has set off a larger debate about our region’s larger economic and environmental priorities, and if the two can comfortably coexist.

Dr. Sally Wenzel, Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Director of the Asthma Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, says it’s a conversation that’s long overdue.

“I think the economic factors have outweighed the health factors,” says Dr. Wenzel. “I think that’s been an issue with the Pittsburgh area for a while.”

For proof, Wenzel only needs to look within the UPMC system. “Ten percent of admissions to Children’s Hospital are asthma-related admissions,” she says, “which is an enormous percentage.”

Wenzel, who has worked in Pittsburgh since 2007 and studied asthma for decades, points out that several generations of Western Pennsylvania’s civic and politic leaders have taken a decidedly pro-industry stance.

“Probably a lot of it is due to the more powerful groups in the region,” says Wenzel. “Obviously when you hold a financial tool, then you are more likely to get people’s attention because you can raise the question of losing jobs.”

Meanwhile, those most adversely affected by our polluting industries have traditionally been excluded from decision-making. “Many of the folks that are actually at the epicenter of some of the challenges don’t necessarily have the voice that other people do,” says Wenzel.

As a scientist, Wenzel is quick to point out that the available evidence does not definitely prove that our region’s alarming rates of asthma are a direct cause of the Mon Valley Works, and there may well be other factors at play. “Smoking laws in Pennsylvania are some of the weakest in the country,” she points out.

Still, she says there is no disputing that as long as our aged steel mills continue to operate, they will also continue to pollute, regardless of updates in the equipment. Our corner of the state must grapple with health questions that have been successfully dodged for many years.

And that may finally be happening: The Health Department declined to comment on the legal case, but PennEnvironment field organizer Zachary Barber says that city’s choice to join the class action suit is an exciting development.

“We feel really positive that the local regulator and citizens groups and activists get to work together to hold the company accountable,” Barber tells NEXTpittsburgh. “We feel pretty strongly that this is the best way to move forward and get the best possible result for people in the Mon Valley.”

Could this signify a new approach to long-time polluters in the Pittsburgh region? Wenzel says hard questions still remain.

Knowing that the Mon Valley Works still drives a considerable portion of the economy, she says, the community must decide: “How much risk are you willing to put up with, knowing that there are long-term health effects that are likely related to emissions from these plants, even with increased controls?”

“It’s a complex issue and I don’t want to oversimplify it, but I think it’s time we had much more of a dialogue,” Wenzel says. “It is time to resurrect some of our environmental history, and have open discussions with all walks of society.”

Bill O'Toole

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