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

U.S. Steel’s decision to shut down one of Pittsburgh’s most notorious sources of pollution and cancel a $1.5 billion upgrade to the Mon Valley Works has reignited a longstanding conflict over jobs and environmental concerns.

“Today is a difficult day,” said David Burritt, president and CEO of U.S. Steel, in a statement posted on Twitter. “U.S. Steel is setting aside this project as we step forward to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. In this world — a world that still needs steel — we need to find aggressive decarbonization solutions.”

“This month, U.S. Steel announced our goal to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050,” he added.

Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate with PennEnvironment praised the decision to permanently shut down three nearly-70-year-old coke batteries at the Clairton Coke Works in 2023.

“Permanently closing the three worst-polluting coke batteries at U.S. Steel’s Clairton plant will come as a huge breath of fresh air to residents in the Mon Valley and across the region,” said Barber. “For too long, U.S. Steel has run roughshod over our environmental protections and churned out dangerous levels of harmful air pollution. Closing these batteries is a necessary and long overdue step toward reducing that damage and cleaning our region’s air.”

Asthma rates for children in Clairton are three times higher than in the rest of the country. The Mon Valley frequently ranks among the worst places in the country for air quality, routinely failing the American Lung Association’s annual air quality reports.

About 3,000 people work at the Mon Valley Works’ three sites.

Clairton Coke Works is the third-most toxic air polluter in Allegheny County in PennEnvironment’s Toxic Ten list. The Cheswick Power Plant ranks as number one on the list and ATI Flat Rolled Products in Brackenridge is second. From 2012 until 2015, 6,700 air permit violations were reported for the Clairton plant, with more than four violations per day on average. In 2018, a massive Christmas Eve fire at Clairton Coke Works knocked out pollution controls for three months.

However, Pittsburgh Works Together, a union/business alliance, notes in a statement that U.S. Steel’s decision to cancel the upgrade to the Mon Valley Works (including its plants in Clairton, Braddock and West Mifflin) will cost an estimated 1,000 well-paying construction jobs, and signal “a diminished future for steelmaking in the Pittsburgh region.”

The project had included a state-of-the-art casting and rolling mill and co-generation plant.

“The continuous caster was intended to allow the Mon Valley Works to manufacture lighter, stronger steel intended for the auto industry, which in turn would have resulted in more efficient cars with lower emissions,” said Jeff Nobers, executive director of Pittsburgh Works Together. “Now that won’t happen here.”

A delay to the permitting process by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) during the pandemic was cited by U.S. Steel as a reason for their decision to rethink the investment.

“We are disappointed that there was a suggestion by U.S. Steel that their decision was based in part on the ACHD’s permitting process,” said ACHD Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly. “We worked closely with U.S. Steel for an extensive period of time on this project, starting in May 2019. Certainly, COVID-19 had an impact on how all organizations operated. Neither the ACHD nor U.S. Steel were an exception. But I can verify that we continued to work proactively to move this project along.”

A number of elected officials expressed their disappointment. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who lives in Braddock, lamented the loss of a chance to make “the greenest steel in the world” in the Mon Valley, in a statement.

“I’m disappointed that the company isn’t moving forward with an initiative that would have been good for our environment, our economy & jobs, and our residents,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in a statement.

The steelmaking giant reiterated its commitment to the region, though. The three batteries to be shut down represent only 17% of coke production capacity at Clairton.

“U.S. Steel remains committed to steelmaking in the Mon Valley for the next generation, with future investments to be developed in alignment with our 2050 carbon-neutral goal,” said Burritt.

“The decision to cancel this project is difficult but is made with optimism for what the future holds for the Mon Valley Works — an economic powerhouse the generated $4.6 billion to the region’s economy in 2018. I have no doubt that our skilled and dedicated workforce at the Mon Valley Works will help lead this change — we have always forged ahead together.”

According to a report by Public Source, if that 17% reduction in coke production leads to a 17% improvement in emissions, it would make the pollution levels in the Mon Valley more in line with neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and better than the air quality in North Braddock, Wilkinsburg, and Neville Island.

Some environmental groups criticized the steelmaking giant for not making the cleaner, more efficient upgrades that were promised.

“This latest announcement continues U.S. Steel’s pattern of broken promises to residents of the Mon Valley while highlighting its recent purchase of Big River Steel’s electric arc furnace facility in Arkansas, a nonunion shop,” said a statement by The Breathe Project. “The Mon Valley has endured a long history of broken promises, followed by abandonment, that has burdened communities for generations.”

Instead of embracing innovation, investing in the Mon Valley and improving quality of life while securing employment, the latest announcement follows a pernicious cycle that leads to abandoning Mon Valley workers, communities and residents. The announcement also cynically uses the excuse of reducing the company’s carbon footprint for the announcement.” 

Recently, U.S. Steel also ended its controversial effort to drill fracking wells for natural gas on the Edgar Thomson steel mill property in Braddock.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.