Group plans to sue U.S. Steel for Clairton air pollution violations
January 29, 2016 12:00 AM
George Jugovic, chief counsel with PennFuture, announces legal action against U.S. Steel for violations of county, state, and federal clean air laws during a press conference at Pittsburgh Filmmakers on January 28, 2016.
By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Decades of air pollution violations at the Clairton Coke Works — including 6,700 pollution-limit violations in 3½ years — have prompted PennFuture to file notice that it intends to sue U.S. Steel Corp. to force compliance with the federal Clean Air Act and other regulations.
During a news conference Thursday, PennFuture officials said the action is necessary because the nation’s largest coke plant continues emitting excessive particulate, sulfur dioxide and air toxin pollutants detrimental to public health. It says the legal action also will involve regulatory agencies that have failed to enforce pollution laws.
U.S. Steel remains under a consent order from the Allegheny County Health Department to make facility upgrades and steadily reduce emissions to reach compliance in coming years. But air pollution regulations continue to tighten based on scientific evidence directly linking pollution levels with heart and respiratory diseases, asthma, cancer and other health problems.
In the past year, PennFuture officials said, it reviewed public documents showing 6,700 violations at the coke works along the Monongahela River, on average five a day, from Jan. 1, 2012, to May 31, 2015. Its members also interviewed residents with health problems believed to be linked to living near the coke plant.
George Jugovic Jr., chief counsel for PennFuture — a statewide environmental group — said “U.S. Steel has failed to take necessary steps to improve air quality and regulatory agencies have failed to take action.
“The facility continues operating more than 45 years after the Clean Air Act was passed, and it’s actually time for them to begin controlling emissions.”
U.S. Steel officials declined comment on PennFuture’s pending legal action, which would be filed in U.S. District Court.
Melissa Wade, spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Health Department, also said the department can’t comment about PennFuture’s announcement without adequate review of the document. “However, we are constantly monitoring Clairton Coke Works,” she said, noting the consent order.
Roy Seneca, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 3 spokesman, said the agency will continue working with county and state officials to bring Clairton Coke Works into compliance, but he, too, refused to comment on PennFuture’s intentions to sue U.S. Steel.
The Clean Air Act allows citizens to file lawsuits if they feel regulatory agencies are failing to enforce the law.
Based on that provision, PennFuture must file notice that it intends to sue. That provides U.S. Steel and regulatory agencies 60 days to resolve the issue with PennFuture and avoid a lawsuit. After 60 days, PennFuture can file its federal lawsuit.
John Graham, senior scientist with Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group, said during the news conference that the region has the most coke works in the nation, although the Shenango Inc. coke works on Neville Island is in the process of shutting down. Other plants include the ArcelorMittal Monessen LLC coke works and a Follansbee, W.Va., coke plant along the Ohio River.
The EPA National Air Toxics Assessment lists Allegheny County as 21st among 3,200 counties nationwide in cancer risk related to air pollution levels. But that ranking rises to 10th worst among the 262 largest counties in the nation. The national average is 40 cancers per million people from pollution exposure, but Allegheny County has 57 cancers per million — 40 percent higher than the national average, the EPA assessment says.
Mr. Graham also said the county has lung and bladder cancers 40 percent higher than the state average.
While the Liberty-Clairton area receives the most direct blast of pollution from the coke works, its emissions extend throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond.
“The simple fact is that Clairton Coke Works is operating illegally and public health is suffering because of it,” Mr. Jugovic said.
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.
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