$42 million settlement of Clean Air Act enforcement suit will upgrade Clairton plant, reduce emissions, create public health funds
PITTSBURGH – The statewide environmental groups PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council announced Tuesday that they have filed in U.S. District Court a proposed consent decree in settlement of their Clean Air Act lawsuit against United States Steel Corporation. If the court, as expected, approves the $42 million agreement, it would resolve a case alleging thousands of violations of air pollution standards that stemmed from a catastrophic 2018 fire and subsequent pollution control system breakdowns at the company’s three Mon Valley Works facilities: the Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson and Irvin steel mills.
The agreement mandates that U.S. Steel will pay 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. Most of the penalty money ($4.5 million) will fund public health projects directly benefiting Mon Valley communities suffering from poor air quality near the three U.S. Steel plants.
“Clean air is a right, not a privilege, for all Pittsburghers,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, the citizen-based non-profit and state group for Environment America. “This historic announcement shows that we will not sit by while illegal air pollution rains down on nearby communities and the Pennsylvanians who live in them.”
The settlement also includes approximately $37 million worth of pollution control and plant reliability upgrades to prevent future breakdowns of essential pollution control systems. To further reduce toxic emissions, U.S. Steel must permanently close more than 10% of the pollution-spewing coke ovens used to process coal used in steel-making.
“This settlement will achieve the three objectives we had when we filed this case,” said Alex Bomstein, Clean Air Council Legal Director. “First, U.S. Steel must upgrade the aging Clairton Coke Works to reduce toxic emissions and prevent future breakdowns; second, the company must pay a substantial monetary penalty to deter future violations; and third, most of that penalty money will directly benefit the communities suffering from poor air quality near U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley facilities.”
U.S. District Judge W. Scott Hardy cannot approve the settlement until a legally required 45-day waiting period ends. Attorneys for the groups say that the announced sale of U.S. Steel to Nippon Steel Corporation will not affect the settlement. The agreement expressly states that any sale of the company requires the purchaser to agree to assume all outstanding terms, conditions and obligations of the proposed consent decree.
The suit, in which the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) intervened as a co-plaintiff, was filed in response to 104 consecutive days of massive, illegal emissions of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide after a catastrophic fire at the Clairton Coke Works on Christmas Eve in 2018. That blaze, caused by corroded equipment and defective safety systems, knocked out several essential pollution controls at Clairton, which the Irvin and Edgar Thomson steel mills also rely on – yet U.S. Steel continued to run those plants without these legally mandated controls. Violations caused by two subsequent breakdowns at the Clairton Coke Works, in June 2019 and July 2022, were also included in the suit.
The terms of the proposed settlement agreement include:
● The aforementioned $37 million worth of improvements. U.S. Steel spent $17.5 million to replace deteriorating equipment and dramatically upgrade preventive maintenance programs after this suit was filed, and must now complete two additional capital projects, costing approximately $19.5 million, to prevent pollution control outages.
● Payment of $5 million, split between ACHD, the Jefferson Regional Foundation, and Allegheny County Department of Economic Development. The latter groups must use their combined $4.5 million portion exclusively to fund public health programs and air quality improvement projects in the Mon Valley communities affected by U.S. Steel’s emissions.
● U.S. Steel must pay automatic penalties for any future pollution control system outages, no matter the cause. These penalties increase with the seriousness and duration of an outage, to as much as $112,500 per day.
● U.S. Steel must accept more stringent permit limits on the allowable amount of hydrogen sulfide in the treated coke oven gas it uses as fuel.
● U.S. Steel must permanently shut down coke oven Battery 15, which consists of 60 highly polluting ovens – more than 10% of the remaining coke ovens at Clairton Works.
The federal Clean Air Act authorizes private citizens affected by violations of the act to sue violators directly, and to seek civil penalties and court-ordered compliance orders when government regulators have not done so. A separate class action lawsuit, seeking damages on behalf of roughly 100,000 Mon Valley residents for exposure to the excess pollution following the 2018 fire, is currently being litigated in state court.
“The Clean Air Act was created to protect people from threats to the quality of their air, which, in turn, often negatively affect their quality of life,” said Douglas H. Phelps, chair of Environment America’s board of directors. “Our goal with this case was not only to hold U.S. Steel accountable for its illegal pollution, but also to protect people well beyond the Mon Valley by creating an incentive for other polluting companies to keep their neighbors safe.”
Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson steel mill have long been a focus of the regional environmental community. PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center ranked the Clairton Coke Works as Allegheny County’s worst air polluter in its 2023 “Toxic Ten” study because the facility released more than 1.1 million pounds of toxics to the county’s air in 2021. The Edgar Thomson mill was the only non-power plant ranked in PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center’s “Dirty Dozen” list of Pennsylvania’s top climate-polluting facilities.
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PennEnvironment is a statewide citizen-funded environmental advocacy organization and part of the Environment America federation. PennEnvironment works to promote clean air, clean water, and protect Pennsylvania’s natural heritage. For more information, visit www.PennEnvironment.org.
Clean Air Council is a member-supported, nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting everyone’s right to a healthy environment. For more information, visit www.cleanair.org.
The groups are represented by the non-profit National Environmental Law Center (NELC), an environmental litigation group, www.nelc.org; environmental attorney David Nicholas of Newton, Massachusetts; and attorney Michael Comber of the Pittsburgh firm Comber & Miller, LLC.