Residents, groups question whether Clairton Coke Works clean air plan will work
April 1, 2016 12:00 AM
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works plant along the Monongahela River.
By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The $1.2 billion upgrade of U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works announced in 2008 and amended in 2010 reduced emissions but didn’t work like the company said it would to meet the facility’s permit limits.
Now, after the announcement last week of the latest in a series of consent orders and agreements between the steelmaker and Allegheny County, environmental and citizens groups and Clairton residents are questioning whether the biggest coke-making facility in the U.S. — which is also the biggest air polluter in the county — can ever meet its health-based air emissions limits.
They’re also asking if the Allegheny County Health Department has the will, or knows the way, to enforce those regulations.
“Speaking as a resident, I’m leery the consent agreement will do anything for the people in Clairton, who are suffering and whose health is affected daily,” said Lee Lasich, a Clairton councilwoman and deputy mayor.
Ms. Lasich, who is also a member of the local citizens group, Residents for a Clean and Healthy Mon Valley, said she attended the groundbreaking for the coke works’ renovations in 2008, along with county political leaders and health department officials, and heard the company promise big emissions reductions.
“It didn’t happen,” Ms. Lasich said. “And as a result, a lot of us are still coming down with cancer and breathing difficulties.”
“Our concern is that this [consent order] could be a recipe for more to the same,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, one of several environmental organizations that have focused on the region’s air quality problems. “The health department is good at getting agreements, but we remain concerned about its ability to enforce those agreements.”
The latest consent agreement, filed March 24 in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, requires the company to inspect coke ovens in three of 10 batteries and submit repair plans if needed. It also must increase baking times to reduce emissions during pushes of the hot coke from the ovens. The company has three years to bring the plant into compliance with emissions limits. It also must pay a $25,000 fine, bringing the total it has paid in penalties to the county since 2009 to almost $4 million.
The 15-count civil complaint also filed March 24 against U.S. Steel by the health department details some of the 6,700 air pollution violations that have occurred over the past 3½ years, many related to opacity, or visible smoke and gas emissions. It also details a history of consent agreements and amended consent orders in 2007, two in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2014.
U.S. Steel, which has spent more than $60 million since 2009 to repair and rehabilitate four of its coke batteries, declined to answer questions about how the agreement will affect production, how it plans to fix the emissions problems or how much the fixes will cost. The facility produces about 4.7 million tons a year of metallurgical quality coke, used as a fuel in steelmaking.
Jim Thompson, the county’s deputy director of environmental health, said in a statement Friday that he is confident the consent agreement will result in the steelmaker taking the steps needed to meet emissions limits.
But Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, said, “The community and GASP are skeptical. We’ve gone down this path with the Clairton Coke Works before and these settlements are not always successful. I don’t want to be in this same situation in three years.”
Ms. Filippini also questioned the lack of public involvement and accountability in crafting the consent order and said the health department should commit to regular progress reports to keep the public informed.
The health department’s announcement of the consent agreement came 58 days after PennFuture, an environmental organization, filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue U.S. Steel over its air pollution violations. George Jugovic Jr., chief counsel for PennFuture, said the organization is reviewing the consent agreement to identify ”opportunities for improving air quality in the Mon Valley.”
Don Hopey: email@example.com, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey
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