U.S. Steel takes a 'giant step' in the Mon Valley

The company has applied for permits to begin upgrading its Clairton Coke Works. At a cost of $1 billion, it would be one of the most expensive capital projects ever in Allegheny County, but environmentalists question if even that is enough.

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The Pittsburgh region got its eye blackened by a recent American Lung Association report labeling it the sootiest metropolitan area in the country, but U.S. Steel Corp.'s proposed $1 billion coke oven replacement and maintenance project in Clairton should improve air quality and go a long way toward removing that civic smudge.

Environmental groups are worried, however, that the coke oven upgrades -- one of the most expensive capital improvement projects in the history of Allegheny County -- might not clean the air as much as they should in the Mon Valley communities that have long been sustained by, and suffered from, the steel industry.

"U.S. Steel is going to build a new coke facility. We know that," said Myron Arnowitt, state director for Clean Water Action, at a public meeting in Clairton last month at which environmental leaders were quick to say their intent is not to stop the project. "But how it's going to affect the people who work and live in the Mon Valley for the next 40 years is the big question. We want it to be the best project possible."

U.S. Steel has applied for an Allegheny County Health Department installation permit for the first phase of the project at the Clairton Coke Works, the nation's largest with annual production of about 4.7 million tons. That permit would allow U.S. Steel to replace three of its 12 coke batteries -- Batteries 7, 8 and 9, built in 1954 -- with a single Battery C that would have fewer but bigger ovens and equal production capacity.

Coke, a fuel and additive used in steelmaking, is produced by baking coal in large brick-lined ovens without oxygen to remove impurities. It's a particularly dirty industrial process that produces airborne emissions of pollutants and particles when gases leak from the ovens; when the hot, baked coke is "pushed" from the ovens; and when it is "quenched," or cooled with water.

The new battery must control those emissions. It will be the first in the United States to use a relatively new pressure-regulated oven technology developed in Europe and known as PROven, designed to draw in gases instead of letting them escape. It also includes a new, low-emissions quench tower to capture pollutants released in the quenching process.

"This is a good permit and I'm confident it will bring the area into compliance on [soot] in Clairton and the Mon Valley by 2011 and certainly by 2015," said Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dixon. "It's a giant step forward over where we are today on the coke ovens."

According to U.S. Steel, when the new battery is completed in 2011 it will reduce all air pollution emissions by 39 percent and airborne particle emissions -- commonly termed soot -- by almost 58 percent.

The soot reductions are important because air monitors in Liberty, across the Monongahela River and less than two miles north of Clairton, have regularly registered the highest levels of the tiniest soot particles that not only formed the basis for the metropolitan area's embarrassing ranking by the American Lung Association but were a major factor in the region's failure to attain federal air quality standards for the tiniest of airborne particles.

Those particles, technically identified as "PM 2.5," are less than 2.5 microns in size -- about one-30th the diameter of a human hair -- and are the most dangerous to human health because they can be breathed deep into the lungs. Asthmatics, the very old and young, and people with existing lung and heart disease are particularly susceptible.

Following the Battery C work, U.S. Steel plans to replace Batteries 1, 2 and 3, built in 1955, with Battery D, an identical facility to Battery C and with similar reductions in air pollution emissions when it is finished in 2013.

Tishie Woodwell, director of environmental control for U.S. Steel, said the new batteries meet best available control technology -- called the "BACT standard" -- required by the county permit, and James Thompson, chief of the Health Department's Air Quality Program, agrees.

"We believe what's in the U.S. Steel permit application is BACT, based on our analysis," Mr. Thompson said. "In fact, this is beyond BACT and is approaching LAER -- the lowest achievable emissions rate."

Also part of the project are extensive rebuilding and maintenance work on Battery B, built in 1982, and Batteries 19 and 20, built in 1976-78, and increased maintenance on Batteries 13, 14 and 15, built from 1979 to 1989.

The replacement of heating walls in Battery B by 2010 is mandated in a 2007 Health Department consent order. Another consent order, issued last month, imposed a $301,800 penalty and requires the company to continue necessary repairs and maintenance on the six coke batteries it plans to shut down.

"This investment program will certainly improve the ambient air quality and the new batteries will be in compliance with the permit limits," said James Volanski, U.S. Steel general manager for environmental affairs.

"Whether that's enough to achieve attainment of federal air standards isn't as clear because there are many other sources inside and outside Allegheny County that can have an impact on that. Other adjustments may need to be made to get into attainment."

But for now, the big oven replacement and maintenance plans in Clairton have focused public attention on the 392-acre facility along the west bank of the Monongahela River as both a major source of the air quality problem and a good way to fix it.

More than 50 people turned out for a public meeting in Clairton last month to review the coke works proposal. Ralph Imbrogno, Clairton's municipal manager, attended and said Clairton officials have been getting lots of questions from residents about the proposed changes.

Lee Lasich, a leader of the citizens group Residents for a Clean & Healthy Mon Valley, told those at the meeting that high cancer and respiratory illness rates in Mon Valley communities should be taken into account when assessing the proposed coke plant changes.

"What are our children breathing? What are the wives breathing?" said Mrs. Lasich, a Clairton resident whose husband worked a maintenance job at the coke works before he got cancer and died four years ago. "We're not here to close the coke works. It's everybody's jobs. I've got family working there.

"But I lost a husband and didn't understand why. Now we have to try to understand it, because we want the jobs, but we also want a clean environment and a healthy place to live."

Despite an aggressive campaign by U.S. Steel to inform Mon Valley neighbors of its plans and meet with environmental and citizen groups, more than 120 individuals and groups have submitted comments on the permit application -- a high number compared with other county permits.

At the request of two environmental groups, Clean Water Action and the Group Against Smog and Pollution, the county Health Department last week agreed to extend the 30-day public comment period for the coke plant upgrade project from June 5 to June 19, to allow more time for review of the complicated application.

Alex Sagady, an environmental consultant from Michigan hired by those groups and the Clean Air Task Force to assess the permit application, said the project will reduce coke oven admissions but not as much as it should.

"There will be a reduction of emissions, but is it enough to produce a good quality of life in Clairton and the Mon Valley?" Mr. Sagady said. "U.S. Steel has proposed tearing out the smallest ovens with the most doors, but if the technology is as good as the company says it is, the community should be pressuring the company to use it on the other ovens too."

Walter Goldburg, a member of the Health Department's Air Pollution Control Advisory Committee, a GASP board member and professor of physics emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, said the company's plans sound good, but he's still worried.

"The trick of the PROven process is that it reduces the pressure in the ovens so they won't leak. Everything depends on that," Dr. Goldburg said. "But the system is brand new. If it fails, our air won't be complying. If it succeeds, we will. Maybe it will work."

The public hearing on the coke plant upgrade permit is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. June 19 in the Clairton Municipal Building, 551 Ravensburg Blvd. Those wishing to comment at the hearing must register with the Health Department no later than 4 p.m. June 18.

Public comments also can be submitted through June 19 by e-mail at aqpermits@achd.net, or by mail to the Allegheny County Health Department, Air Quality Program, 301 39th St., Pittsburgh 15201. The permit can be reviewed online at the Health Department Web site, www.achd.net.

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published June 2, 2008 4:00 AM


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