Clairton Coke Works. Photo by Mark Dixon, Blue Lens, LLC.

The Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Steel recently reached a settlement over air pollution violations at the Clairton Coke Works, but Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, isn’t satisfied with it.

The agreement requires U.S. Steel to provide a little more than $3 million in fines, which will be placed into a trust fund and distributed to five communities in the Mon Valley: Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue.

Mehalik and other environmental leaders believe there should be a 30-day public comment period on the agreement. They also take issue with trust’s Community Advisory Panel (CAP), which includes only one person per affected community and they contend that it lacks transparency in the way it operates.

The Breathe Project is a coalition of environmental groups and acts as a clearinghouse for information on air quality in the Pittsburgh region.

“Our concern is that there is nobody who has public health experience who is required to be part of this proposed trust and no requirement in the trust that the money be used to alleviate air quality harms and effects,” Mehalik says. “The Clean Air Fund is set up to mitigate the impacts of air pollution. The trust doesn’t require that to happen.”

The Allegheny County Health Department noted violations of the Clean Air Act by U.S. Steel in the Mon Valley for several quarters in 2018 and 2019 and issued penalties. Typically, those penalties are paid to the county through the Clean Air Fund. Instead, the money is being placed in a community trust which will be distributed across 18,602 people in the five communities.

Based on U.S. Steel’s initial deposit of $2.46 million last June into the trust, the money equates to $132.20 per person, Mehalik says.

Under the terms of the agreement, the company is required to meet emission standards from a 2018 enforcement order, which will include $200 million in plant improvements, the health department says. In addition, 90% of fines for future emissions violations must be paid into the trust over the next five years.

The trust agreement was reached in June 2019, but the terms were not finalized until they were released publicly on Feb. 10, without a public comment period.

“We appreciate the environmental groups weighing in, but will not be providing a public comment period for the trust agreement,” says Ron Sugar, interim director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “This process has been more transparent than any such settlement agreement in the past, but our focus has been on moving forward with this so that the benefits can get to those impacted communities.”

Mehalik says the agreement does not prioritize Clairton, the most populous of the communities impacted, and the one closest to harmful emissions from the Clairton Coke Works.

The allocation to each community is based on population and land area.

The Smithfield Trust Company will serve as the administrator of the trust.

“Residents of Clairton clearly bear a disproportionate burden of health effects that are directly attributable to the air pollution coming from the Coke Works,” says Deborah Gentile of Community Partners for Asthma Care, in a Breathe Project news release. “The amount of this settlement is minuscule and most likely insufficient to lead to meaningful changes to the health of these residents.”

Mehalik says he and others from the Breathe Project will attend the Allegheny County Board of Health’s public meeting on March 4 at 12:30 p.m. at 542 Fourth Ave., Downtown. The group is calling for a clean air rally on March 19.

A rally was held on Jan. 10 in front of the City-County Building to protest the fact that from Dec. 21-26, 2019, Allegheny County air quality ranked in the top five worst in the country according to the EPA’s

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.