On Christmas Eve 2018, residents of Clairton, PA, woke up to a sooty haze and a strong sulfurous stench in the air. Earlier that morning, U.S. Steel Corporation’s sprawling Clairton Coke Works experienced a catastrophic fire in the building that houses equipment tasked with removing sulfur and other dangerous pollutants from coke oven gas, a carcinogenic byproduct of coal production at the facility. For the next 102 days, U.S. Steel continued to operate, generating untreated coke oven gas. The company illegally combusted this coke oven gas as fuel throughout the Coke Works and two nearby steel mills, and illegally burned it in open-air flares. As U.S. Steel spewed out roughly a month’s worth of sulfur dioxide every three days, along with hydrogen sulfide and harmful small particles, residents reported splitting headaches, uncontrollable asthma attacks, and difficulty breathing.

In April 2019, NELC filed a Clean Air Act suit on behalf of PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council in order to hold U.S. Steel accountable for avoidable violations that put public health at risk and compel the company to undertake the structural and operational upgrades needed to prevent another such catastrophe. In June 2019, just months after filing, a major fire again knocked out the pollution controls at Clairton. Shortly thereafter, the Allegheny County Health Department intervened in our suit as a co-plaintiff.

In January 2024, the parties reached a historic $42 million dollar settlement.  The settlement achieves NELC’s goals of compliance, deterrence, and remediation.  It secures future compliance by requiring U.S. Steel to spend $37 million on pollution control and reliability upgrades and by imposing stipulated penalties for future outages.  It deters U.S. Steel by imposing a $5 million penalty, by far the largest in a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement suit in Pennsylvania history, and one of the three largest ever nationally.  And it remediates past harms by directing $4.5 million of the $5 million penalty to public health projects directly benefiting Mon Valley communities.  The settlement also requires U.S. Steel to reduce its routine emissions by permanently closing a battery of coke ovens (representing 10% of Clairton’s production capacity) and by accepting more stringent permit limits on the allowable amount of hydrogen sulfide in the treated coke oven gas it uses as fuel.