Air pollution control units at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works

PITTSBURGH – In April 2019, NELC attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal district court against U.S. Steel, alleging that the company’s Clairton Coke Works and two related steel mills situated in the Monongahela Valley, south of Pittsburgh, had repeatedly and egregiously violated the Clean Air Act when the company made the decision to continue running these facilities despite the fact that a massive fire at Clairton Works had knocked several key air pollution control devices out of commission for more than three months.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two citizen groups, PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council. Since then, the Allegheny County Health Department—the agency authorized to enforce the Clean Air Act—has joined the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff; the parties have exchanged documents and other discovery requests; NELC attorneys and consulting engineers have participated in a site visit to inspect the facilities; and a mediator was hired to assist in a court-ordered attempt to reach a settlement of the case this past December.

Although the settlement negotiation was ultimately unsuccessful, NELC attorneys have succeeded in gaining a much greater understanding of the underlying problems at Clairton Coke Works that led to the December 24, 2018 fire—and of the steps U.S. Steel must be required to take in order to reduce the chance of disasters like it in the future.

The Christmas Eve fire engulfed an area roughly the size of a football field in a building at Clairton Coke Works that houses essential components of the facility’s air pollution control systems.

Two studies of the cause of the Christmas Eve fire, performed by an outside engineering firm and produced to NELC during discovery, revealed a cascade of failures—from a leaky roof, to corroded and cracked equipment, to deficient maintenance, to a preventable release of highly flammable coke oven gas—so egregious they would be almost comical if the results were not so devastating for the surrounding communities. The Rube Goldberg-like sequence of events leading to the fire paints a damning picture of a poorly designed, poorly maintained, and poorly-run plant.

Through further investigations, including additional document discovery, depositions of company personnel, and expert analysis, NELC staff will probe more deeply into the problems at U.S. Steel. We will seek a court order requiring a major overhaul of this facility, and substantial civil penalties to change the conduct of this company going forward.