PITTSBURGH—On Feb. 13, National Environmental Law Center (NELC) attorneys notified the United States Steel Corporation (U.S. Steel) of their intent to file suit for violations of the Clean Air Act. NELC, representing PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, took the action following a December 2018 fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Mill Works, which destroyed an important part of the plant’s pollution controls.
Rather than suspend its production until pollution controls could be replaced, the company chose to continue its operations at nearly full capacity. As a result, local air quality monitors have registered high levels of pollutants and residents have reported increased respiratory problems.
Clairton Works is the largest byproducts coke plant in North America. The facility bakes millions of tons of coal at high temperatures in large ovens to produce “coke,” a hard, porous material used in the steel-making process. Baking coke generates highly toxic coke oven gas (COG). COG can be reused in the steelmaking process as fuel. However, because COG contains dangerous chemicals, the Clean Air Act requires that COG be routed through pollution control systems to remove sulfur and other pollutants before it can be reused or flared into the atmosphere. The December fire at the Clairton Works damaged the desulfurization unit, where pollutants are removed from the COG. The desulfurization unit was offline for almost four months after the fire.
Nevertheless, U.S. Steel continued to bake coke in the ovens at Clairton Works without the required pollutant removal.
During that period, U.S. Steel used “raw,” untreated COG as part of the fuel mix at Clairton Works and two of its nearby facilities, the Irvin and Edgar Thomson plants. When uncleaned COG was burned as fuel, toxic chemicals were released into the air. The COG that was not used as fuel was burned off directly into the air at flaring stations, which also released toxicants. In order to protect the surrounding community’s air quality, U.S. Steel’s operating permits prohibit using or flaring uncleaned COG.
“U.S. Steel chose to harm the community by emitting huge amounts of pollutants rather than harm its bottom line by halting production,” said NELC Attorney Maggie Nivison. “U.S. Steel should not pocket those profits.”
More than 100,000 people live within five miles of the three facilities and were placed at daily risk from the increased air emissions. Even when pollution controls are fully operational, children in the area experience higher rates of asthma than children in other parts of Pennsylvania. A pediatrician conducting a local asthma study reported that many of these children suffered more serious asthma symptoms during the period when the pollution controls were offline. Nearby air pollution monitors have recorded exceedances of Clean Air Act health limits for sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, and the Allegheny County Health Department has issued health advisories to residents in more than 20 neighboring towns, warning them to limit outdoor activity because it is unsafe to breathe the air.