PITTSBURGH—As NELC attorneys adapt to the “new normal” of travel restrictions and social distancing, remote depositions are well underway in NELC’s lawsuit against U.S. Steel for violations of the Clean Air Act. The suit, filed on behalf of PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council, arises from a massive fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works facility in December 2018. The fire knocked out key pollution control devices, subjecting nearby communities to months of dramatically increased exposure to airborne pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.
A recent focus in the litigation has been U.S. Steel’s depositions of members of PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council. Under the legal concept known as “standing to sue,” a group filing a citizen enforcement lawsuit must demonstrate that its individual members
have a direct stake in the environmental problem being addressed. To establish standing, members of environmental groups must show that they are suffering an actual or threatened injury to their health, recreational, or aesthetic interests; that the alleged violator has caused or contributed to their injury; and that a favorable court decision would offer some measure of relief.
Johnie Perryman, a 76-year-old PennEnvironment member, testified that he began feeling weak and short of breath within months of moving to Clairton from Seattle in 2007. Although word of the December 2018 fire initially reached him through social media, he learned of its severity “by the way it was kicking my natural butt.”
After the fire, Mr. Perryman grew weaker, and he testified that he often woke up with his “chest thumping.” To protect himself, he purchased and wore painter’s masks inside his home, installed air purifiers, and began running his furnace nonstop to take advantage of the attached air filter.
As standing witness depositions continue, attorneys for NELC have conducted depositions of key U.S. Steel officials, including the Clairton Coke Works plant manager and U.S. Steel’s vice president of environmental affairs.
“The powerful testimony from our standing witnesses stands in stark contrast with testimony from U.S. Steel officials,” notes NELC attorney Matt Donohue. “The company appears unwilling or unable to demonstrate that it is concerned with the effect of its conduct on the environment and neighboring communities, which reinforces the need for federal court intervention.”
For example, Kurt Barshick, general manager of the three U.S. Steel plants affected by the December fire, testified that he was unaware of any efforts by the company to determine whether the December fire could have been prevented, to determine whether increased emissions after the fire affected public health, or to determine whether such increased emissions had any effect on the environment.
Trial against U.S. Steel is currently scheduled to commence in the summer of 2021.