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

On Thursday morning, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD)  issued an enforcement order against three of U.S. Steel’s major facilities in the Monongahela Valley, citing numerous violations of air quality standards since a fire at the Clairton Coke Works in late December.

The current action is separate from the $1,000,000 order issued in June of 2018, which the company is currently appealing.

According to the order, U.S. Steel must find ways to reduce coke oven gas and sulfur dioxide emissions at the Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Plant and Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock until the repairs are completed at the Clairton plant, or through June 30, whichever comes later.

“To get the plant back into compliance, and to protect the health of the public, it was essential to prepare and issue this evidence-based order,” Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health for ACHD, said in an announcement about the order. “We are also requiring the implementation of further mitigation strategies necessary to comply with permitted emission limits that were set for the protection of public health.”

Clairton Coke Works is the largest facility of its kind in the country. It operates 10 different batteries which are essentially ovens that cook specific kinds of coal over many hours to produce materials used in the manufacturing of steel.

The order offers several remediation strategies, such as reducing the volume of coal in the ovens, and also invites the corporation to submit their own proposals. The company is required to respond within five days.

In a statement emailed today to NEXTpittsburgh, U.S. Steel wrote, “U. S. Steel has received a copy of the health department’s order and is reviewing it. It is important to note that we have made significant progress on repairing our facility in the aftermath of the Dec. 24 fire.”

The email went on to state that, “U. S. Steel will continue to work collaboratively with relevant stakeholders, state and local government officials and agencies to achieve our common goal of protecting our shared environment and the jobs of thousands of skilled Mon Valley Works employees who manufacture world-class steel products and that have been the pride of the Pittsburgh region for generations.”

In the aftermath of the fire, many community groups criticized the ACHD for waiting until Jan. 9 to issue air quality alerts. Today, several activist groups cheered the department’s action.

“Few issues are more paramount for Pittsburgh area residents than clean air, and the Clairton Coke Works has a long history of contributing to degraded air quality in the region,” Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s Western Pennsylvania director, tells NEXTpittsburgh. “We hope to work cooperatively with the Health Department to uphold vital limits on air pollution and create a disincentive for any company to let such a situation — operating a plant without a functioning pollution control system — happen again.”

Christopher Ahlers, staff attorney at the Clean Air Council, had a similar reaction: “We are glad to see the Health Department take this step,” Ahlers says. “We all have the same goals: ensuring that pollution controls are restored, minimizing harmful emissions and promoting healthy air in the community. We want to ensure a complete, speedy and just resolution of this public health problem.”

On Feb. 13, PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council formally announced their intention to file a lawsuit against U.S. Steel for violating the Clean Air Act.

In addition to the enforcement order, the Health Department has also submitted recommendations to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection asking for tighter emission standards and increased regulatory powers over bad actors. That proposal is currently under review.

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