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Environmentalists and U.S. Steel clash over Allegheny County air quality regulations

  • By Oliver Morrison and Julia Zenkevich/ WESA
U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant, the largest coke works in North America, in Clairton, Pa.

Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania

U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant, the largest coke works in North America, in Clairton, Pa.

Residents, activists, union workers and U.S. Steel weighed in on new rules that could reduce air pollution from the Clairton Coke Works at a public hearing Wednesday night.

The rule would limit how much pollution comes from coke ovens, the primary source of emissions at the coke works.

U.S. Steel, the largest polluter in the region, supports the new rule. But air quality activists say it doesn’t go far enough. And health department regulators now appear to be taking a different approach.

The original rule proposed by the health department in 2020 was more stringent and was supposed to reduce hydrogen sulfide pollution, the gas that creates a rotten egg smell. But the original rule was challenged by U.S. Steel in court. In January, a judge threw out the part of the rule that would limit hydrogen sulfide pollution. The regulation didn’t comply with a 2019 consent order between the health department and U.S. Steel.

Since then, the health department has tried a new approach to reduce the rotten egg smell in the region. In March, it fined U.S. Steel $1.8 million for excessive hydrogen sulfide pollution, the first time it had ever fined the company for hydrogen sulfide pollution. In 2021, air pollution in the Pittsburgh region exceeded state standards on 54 separate days. Pollution from the Coke Works accounts for more than 90% of the hydrogen sulfide gas in the county, according to the health department.

Jay Ting Walker, an advocacy coordinator with the Clean Air Council, is frustrated that the new rules have been watered down. He thinks fines don’t do enough to prevent U.S. Steel from polluting, so he organized residents to make their voices heard at the hearing.

“The only way that their actions change is when they get bad press in the news. Basically, if they get embarrassed,” he said. “So we’re hoping that we can get a lot of residents speaking with the same voice.

A spokesperson for the health department said they couldn’t make anyone available to speak about the rules on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for U.S. Steel said in a statement that the new rule proposed by the health department is better than the existing rule or the department’s previous proposals.

Valley Clean Air Now, a group of Clairton residents, held a rally outside the Clairton Municipal Building before the meeting.

Qiyam Ansari, the lead organizer for Valley Clean Air Now, said many Clairton residents either don’t know about these meetings or don’t understand the new air quality regulations published by the health department.

“No everyday person is going to be able to read that document and understand how that affects them in their health,” he said. “I think things need to be simplified and explained to folks.”

At the hearing, some Mon Valley residents expressed frustration over the actions the health department has taken so far.

“You have not fined them enough to get their attention,” said David Meckle, a Glassport resident. “They’ve got more money than Carter got little liver pills, and you need to take some of their money away from them.”

But some U.S. Steel employees worried tougher environmental regulations could prompt the company to take jobs elsewhere.

Don Furko, president of United Steelworkers Local 1557, said he remembers when Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed in the 1980s. He fears a similar exodus could happen again.

“U.S. Steel has already made it clear that it has no qualms about taking its focus away from the Mon Valley to operate where it sees less opposition. They’ve asked to work cooperatively with the Allegheny County Health Department. . . I urge you to work cooperatively with the company.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the manufacturing industry employs about 83,000 people in the Pittsburgh region. At its peak, manufacturing accounted for more than 382,000 jobs in the area.

Allegheny County Councilor At Large Sam DeMarco and district 9 councilor Bob Macey echoed similar concerns.

“U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works is the largest industrial employer in Allegheny County. It has provided a steady and reliable source of good-paying jobs for generations of steelworkers, building trades, and local contractors,” DeMarco said. “If the Allegheny County Health Department continues to force more stringent, subjective and arbitrary regulations on the Clairton Coke Plant, it could jeopardize the future of the entire Mon Valley Works and the thousands of good-paying jobs it provides.”

Steelworker Joseph Burgess warned that closing the plant could have consequences for the entire region.

“For the Allegheny County Health Department to continue to put the restrictions on this plant that they’re doing is only going to drive businesses out of here. And if this place fails, it does not only fail the city of Clairton. It fails the whole southwestern region of this state,” he said, noting that people from as far away as Indiana County work at the Mon Valley facilities.

About 700 of the facilities’ 3,000 employees live in Mon Valley communities, U.S. Steel said.

Clairton resident Germaine Gooden-Patterson said she felt discouraged by the “blatant disregard” shown for the health and lives of Clairton residents impacted by air pollution.

“Residents’ health cannot be protected and will not be protected if U.S. Steel just pays quarterly fines instead of reducing emissions violations,” she said. “Residents’ health cannot and will not be protected if the out-of-date Clairton Coke Works Title V permit is not updated in a way which really protects residents and is not written so that U.S. Steel is given a pass to simply pay to pollute.”

The county health department will accept public comments on the rules until 4 p.m. on May 17.

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