U.S. Steel, Allegheny County Health Department reach agreement on clean air violations
March 25, 2016 3:52 PM
In 2013, officials walk the length of the new battery coke ovens after a ceremony at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant. The company invested over $500 million to build the new battery and make other improvements.
By Len Boselovic / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Steel said Friday they have agreed on a new plan for resolving ongoing air quality violations at the Pittsburgh steel producer’s coke plant in Clairton.
A proposed consent agreement filed Thursday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court indicates U.S. Steel will make a number of changes at the plant to reduce emissions. U.S. Steel has paid more than $3.9 million in fines since 2009 for violating previous consent agreements and will pay another $25,000 as part of the latest agreement.
U.S. Steel declined to discuss what measures it has agreed to take as part of the settlement, when the improvements will be completed, or what they might cost.
In an emailed statement, the company said “environmental stewardship is a core value at U.S. Steel.”
“We are fortunate to be able to work with [the health department] to ensure the future of not only Clairton, but the entire Mon Valley Works,” the statement read.
In a statement, Jim Thompson, deputy health department director, said the agreement is designed to bring Clairton “into compliance in the fastest way possible.”
“We are confident that with this consent judgment, U.S. Steel will take all necessary steps to bring Clairton Coke Works into compliance with the law,” Mr. Thompson said.
The agreement comes two months after a statewide environmental group threatened to take U.S. Steel to court over decades of air pollution violations at the Clairton plant, including 6,700 pollution-limit violations over the last three and a half years. The group, PennFuture, said it would go to federal court to force U.S. Steel to comply with the federal Clean air Act and other regulations.
George Jugovic Jr., PennFuture’s chief counsel, said the Harrisburg-based group had asked the health department to be involved in working on a solution at Clairton, one of the biggest sources of air quality complaints in the region.
“They refused to involve us,” Mr. Jugovic said. “It’s classic Allegheny County Health Department, behind-closed-doors-in-a-smokey-room shenanigans.”
He said PennFuture will file its own complaint if the consent agreement does not address the problems his group identified.
At a press conference in January, PennFuture said it reviewed public documents indicating that there were 6,700 violations at the Clairton plant — an average of five per day — from Jan. 1, 2012, through May 31, 2015. At the time, Mr. Jugovic said the Clairton plant “was operating illegally and public health is suffering because of it.”
The federal Clean Air Act allows citizens to file lawsuits if they believe regulatory agencies are not enforcing the law.
Making coke, a baked coal used to fuel blast furnaces, is one of the dirtiest jobs in the steel industry. Clairton, North America’s largest coke plant, operates 10 batteries of ovens where the coal is baked. A coke plant on Neville Island that was also the target of air quality complaints recently shut down, citing depressed steel industry conditions.
Under the terms of the consent agreement, U.S. Steel agreed to inspect the oven walls of three of the batteries and submit a plan for making any necessary repairs. It also agreed to keep coal in the ovens longer unless it can prove it can remain in compliance with shorter baking times. U.S. Steel also agreed to pay penalties of $20,000 a month if the batteries do not achieve compliance in a timely manner and additional penalties of $500 and $800 for individual violations.
Industry supporters argue aggressive enforcement of clean air laws poses more burdens on steelmakers already plagued by low prices and a flood of imports. U.S. Steel only reported one profitable year since 2009 and posted a $1.5 billion loss in 2015.
Mr. Jugovic is concerned the latest agreement won’t accomplish what the health department says it will.
“The solution appears to be that they continue to violate the law for another three years, and if they can’t come into compliance, it appears they pay to pollute, and set a new compliance date farther on down the road,” he said in an email.
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