U.S. Steel fires spark community backlash

U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works plant.

Air quality groups in Pittsburgh are fired up over a string of fires — including a recent incident on June 13 — at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, located about 30 minutes south of Oakland.

Since then, residents and environmental advocacy groups have declared “enough is enough” and are taking action against the steelmaker by filing a lawsuit to demand enforcement of local pollution regulations.

In response to the June fire, which was caused by a mechanical problem, the Allegheny County Health Department issued an emergency order forcing U.S. Steel to comply with environmental regulations and required the plant to submit plans within 24 hours about how it planned to do so. The plant would have been required to cease operations if compliance requirements were not met in up to 21 days. Though the pollution controls were off for nearly 16 hours, health department monitors did not detect any violations of air quality standards.

This most recent fire follows a much larger fire which occurred on Christmas Eve of 2018. The Dec. 24 fire led to desulfurization equipment being out of commission for nearly three months, resulting in a combined 28 exceedances of environmental standards for three different regulated materials — sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter 2.5.

Christopher Ahlers, a staff attorney at Clean Air Council, said the number of exceedances actually understated the problem, because not all people in the area live close to a monitoring station.

“This meant that the hydrogen sulfide content in the coke oven gas being burned was several times higher than air permit limits,” Ahlers said in an email. “This happened continuously. The emissions were largely concentrated at one location [the Irvin Works in West Mifflin], although all three [U.S. Steel] facilities continued to burn coke oven gas to some degree.”

Exposure to such pollutants is correlated with heightened risks of respiratory conditions like asthma, certain cancers and other severe illnesses. Certain groups of people are considered more at risk, such as elderly people, young children and those with preexisting respiratory conditions, according to Geoff Bland, the air quality organizer at Clean Water Action.

“This is what makes these fires so nefarious,” Bland said. “Sulfur dioxide, longtime exposure isn’t going to give you cancer or severe respiratory problems, but it is a very acute respiratory irritant. So if you are an already vulnerable population, like older folks or people who already have respiratory conditions like asthma, sulfur dioxide is a very big trigger for those kinds of health events.”

The Breathe Project, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups across Allegheny County, held a press conference about the issues surrounding the recent fires on June 18 outside of the U.S. Steel Tower downtown.

Melanie Meade, a 44-year-old Clairton resident who spoke at the rally, said she and her family have suffered from sudden-onset health conditions while living near the U.S. Steel plant. Meade was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2006 after an overnight episode that caused her blood pressure to skyrocket, which she suspects is related to the pollution. But now, Meade added, she’s deeply concerned about her 9-year-old son.

“My son has been dealing with allergy symptoms, and, of course, he doesn’t have allergies,” Meade said. “Whatever is in the air is causing him to have allergy symptoms.”

Dr. Deborah Gentile, a North Hills pediatrician, told Environmental Health News in January that she saw an increase in respiratory symptoms occurring in children who resided near the plant after the fire. This data affirmed earlier research that children who live around the Clairton plant, who are mostly from lower-income and black families, were at a much higher risk of displaying asthma-like symptoms due to heavy exposure to pollutants. Nearly 20% of Clairton Elementary School students have asthma, double the state average.

Several environmental groups, including PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel in response to the pollution from the Christmas Eve fire.

“In response to the company’s continuous noncompliance with its air permits for over three months, the lawsuit seeks an order to comply with the air permits, an order to implement measures to remedy, mitigate, or offset the harm to public health and the environment, an order to develop and implement a contingency plan to prevent unauthorized combustion of coke oven gas as fuel or in flares when pollution controls are inoperable, and an appropriate civil penalty to be assessed, with some money to be used in beneficial mitigation projects that enhance the public health and the environment in the areas adversely affected,” Ahlers wrote in an email.

The county health department filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit in early May, which was granted last Tuesday. In a press release, the department said joining the suit would “ensure the strongest case possible” is brought against U.S. Steel.

“After reviewing the initial filing, our legal counsel determined that collaborating with the citizens’ groups would increase the resources available to the department and allow for the best possible outcome of our enforcement action for public health and impacted residents,” the health department said in a press release.

Community members living near the Clairton plant have long been wary about pollution stemming from the facility, but have been increasingly taking these issues public since the Dec. 24 fire, Bland said.

“What we’ve been seeing with these fires, are almost like rallying cries for a community that has been held hostage for some time. Pretty much, U.S. Steel has told people of Clairton and the surrounding communities that, ‘Without us, your towns wouldn’t exist,’” Bland said. “They really are being held hostage by this pollution.”

A previous version of this story referred to the Breathe Project as the Breeze Project. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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