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

The debate over air quality in the Mon Valley flared this week as the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) called on U.S. Steel to once again improve pollution-creating conditions at Clairton Coke Works. It came just days after the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) leveled $383,450 in penalties against the steelmaking company.

“This is nothing new — this ongoing problem shows the Coke Works are in disrepair,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini says. “There sounds like a real lack of interest or willingness … to make improvements at their Mon Valley facilities.”

Filippini pointed to coke production at the Clairton plant that, she says, spews chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and fine particulates into the air, leading to increased prevalence of asthma, cardiovascular problems and cancer in area residents.

A study last year showed more than 22% of children in Clairton have asthma and are getting sick at a rate three times higher than the national average.

“Poor air quality affects public health and [Clairton Coke Works] needs to be treated as a public health issue,” Filippini tells NEXTpittsburgh.

Amanda Malkowski, a spokesperson with U.S. Steel, responded to GASP’s calls to replace aging batteries at the plant by saying that Clairton Coke Works achieved monthly, quarterly and annual compliance records in 2020 for its battery combustion stack performance. The company also recently invested $200 million in environmental protection at three U.S. Steel plants in the Mon Valley, Malkowski says.

Yet U.S. Steel “has always been assessed quarterly penalties that result from daily coke oven inspections and stack monitor data,” says Allegheny County Communications Director Amie Downs, referring to a June 2019 settlement with the ACHD.

U.S. Steel posted fourth-quarter 2020 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of about $55 million, according to the company’s website.

“’Stipulated’ means the settlement defines how the penalties are assessed,” Downs adds, “and that 90% of the monetary value will go into a Community Benefit Trust to be allocated to the five most impacted municipalities near the Clairton facility.”

Those communities are Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln and Port Vue.

The remaining 10 percent — or $38,345 — will be payable to the Allegheny County Clean Air Fund.

The charges of air contamination came less than two months after Allegheny County reported that, for the first time in its history, all eight air-quality monitors in the county were meeting federal air quality standards.

“This achievement comes after years of hard work by the Health Department, federal and state agencies and local industry to clean up the air in Allegheny County,” county Health Department Director Debra Bogen said. “But we have more work to do, and the Health Department is committed to ensuring everyone in Allegheny County has clean air to breathe.”

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music magazines PopMatters and Spectrum Culture. He has been contributing to NEXTpittsburgh since January 2020. He lives in Greenfield.