US Steel, Allegheny County have a draft agreement on pollution violations

Deal does not affect lawsuit over pollution from Dec. 24 fire

  • Reid Frazier

The Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Steel have a draft agreement to resolve multiple air pollution violations from the company’s Clairton Plant over the past two years.

The agreement calls on the company to pay $2.7 million in fines and put in place a suite of pollution upgrades at the plant. The company said the price of those upgrades is $200 million.

The agreement does not resolve legal issues between the county and the company over air pollution problems that resulted from a Dec. 24 fire. That fire knocked out pollution controls at the plant for more than three months.

Earlier this month, a judge allowed the agency to join a lawsuit by environmental groups over violations at the plant resulting from the fire. The company had a second fire on June 17 that knocked the same pollution controls offline for a day.

“We might not have gotten everything we wanted, but we believe this settlement will result in significant improvements to air quality and the lowering of emissions,” said Karen Hacker, Allegheny Health Department director.

Hacker said the negotiations with US Steel were lengthy and she wasn’t sure what would come of them.

“It was a long process and there were certainly many points at which we thought that they were walking away,” she said. “We were quite surprised that they basically decided to move forward.”

The draft agreement, if signed, resolves four separate enforcement actions at the Clairton plant, the largest coke works in the country:

  • a June 2018 order which fined the company over $1 million and threatened to idle some of the plant’s worst-performing batteries;
  • a $600,000 fine issued in October 2018
  • a $700,000 fine issued in March, and
  • a $300,000 fine issued in May.

In a statement, Sara Greenstein, senior vice president of consumer solutions at U.S. Steel, said the agreement fairly addressed the company’s reasons for appealing the fines and said it demonstrated the company’s “commitment to protecting our shared environment and neighboring communities.”

To make coke, a key component of steelmaking, the company bakes coal at high temperatures at Clairton. The facility is the county’s largest source of fine particles, and is a large source of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carcinogens like benzene.

The upgrades to the plant to be made as part of the agreement include the installation of air curtains for Battery B, one of 10 coke oven batteries at the plant, to improve the capture of fugitive emissions. It also calls for repairs to the wall of Battery 15, to cut down on leaks, and upgrades to pollution capture structures called bag houses at several of the batteries.

The agreement also calls for a new, taller stack at Battery 15, to increase the dispersion of pollution from the stack, and the reconstruction of several flues on some of the plant’s coke batteries.

In addition, the company will submit to annual performance audit by a third-party pollution specialist, expand environmental compliance training at the plant, and increase its reporting to the county.

Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health at the agency, said the reporting is a critical part of the agreement because it gives regulators a window into how the plant is performing.

Right now, he said, “They don’t report anything. We don’t know what their maintenance operations are. You’re seeing some problems — we just had a fire. They had a fire six months ago. Obviously we’re concerned about how they’re maintaining their equipment. So this gives us an opportunity to look into that.

“This gives us a lot of emission controls that go beyond what regulation would have required,” Kelly said.

The county agreed it will streamline its system of assessing penalties at the plant, clarify requirements for pollution testing, and define its procedures for developing new coke oven emission standards.

Of the $2.7 million in fines, 90 percent go toward a trust fund for five surrounding communities: Clairton, Glassport, Lincoln, Liberty, and Port Vue. The communities will decide how to spend the money.

The agreement also calls for the development of a community advisory panel of residents and elected officials from the closest communities.

The upgrades are separate from $1 billion in upgrades the company is making throughout its Pittsburgh-area plants. The company says those upgrades will lower air pollution from its facilities.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald praised the deal.

“I have always asked that the department do everything in its power to ensure that industry is meeting its obligations and responsibilities, and that we are protecting our citizens, and this agreement is a significant step towards meeting those goals,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “I look forward to U.S. Steel meeting these obligations that will benefit our county, our air quality, the impacted municipalities and their communities and residents.”

Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said in an emailed statement there were “several promising aspects” of the agreement.

“Repairs to leaking and poorly performing equipment, agreeing to a 3rd party audit of performance and thinking about directing fines towards community benefit are positive.”

Mehalik said he had “preliminary” concerns, like the fact that it “does not appear” that the communities surrounding Clairton were consulted in the drafting of the agreement. “The agreement also lends itself to perceptions of ‘pay to pollute’ and the proposed investments may not make a lasting difference in a facility that has ongoing breakdowns, fires, and plant failures to control air pollution,” Mehalik said.

The draft agreement will enter a 30-day public comment period beginning July 1. The public can send comments by mail to Allegheny County Health Department, Air Quality, 301 39th Street, Bldg #7, Pittsburgh, PA 15201-1811; by email to  aqcomments@alleghenycounty.us, or by fax to 412-578-8144.

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