PITTSBURGH—U.S. Steel Corporation’s three Mon Valley Works facilities—Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson and Irvin steel mills— are among the largest sources of industrial air pollution in western Pennsylvania. Cracking down on the company’s ever-expanding record of environmental violations has become nearly a full-time job, not only for the litigation team at NELC, but also for the enforcement staff at the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), the agency assigned to oversee Clean Air Act compliance.
In April 2019, NELC attorneys sued U.S. Steel after the company chose to operate the three Mon Valley plants for more than 100 consecutive days without essential air pollution control systems. A massive fire on Christmas Eve 2018 had destroyed the area of the Clairton plant responsible for removing pollutants from coke oven gas, which is generated in enormous quantities and combusted as fuel at all three facilities.
Documents obtained in the litigation, which was filed on behalf of PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, show that the fire was the result of fully preventable equipment breakdowns and that emissions of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and fine particles into surrounding neighborhoods soared above state and federal odor and safety thresholds.
Another preventable fire at the Clairton plant caused a second pollution control outage in June 2019, after which ACHD joined our lawsuit as a co-plaintiff.
On Jan. 26, 2022, U.S. District Court Judge W. Scott Hardy heard oral arguments on NELC’s motion seeking a pre-trial ruling that U.S. Steel had violated the Clean Air Act more than 10,000 times as a result of these breakdowns. For nearly five hours, Senior Attorney Josh Kratka walked the court through the extensive factual record and made the case that U.S. Steel’s own records and other undisputed evidence unequivocally establish the company’s liability.
If NELC’s motion is successful, a trial would then focus on the plaintiffs’ request that an outside monitor be appointed to overhaul U.S. Steel’s environmental compliance and that a civil penalty be assessed to deter future non-compliance and recoup the economic benefit the company gained through its violations. Penalties can be as high as $100,000 for each violation.
In other developments, ACHD issued a report in March conclusively establishing that U.S. Steel’s Clairton plant is the source of elevated hydrogen sulfide levels in the area, a fact that has been obvious to local residents but denied for years by U.S. Steel. Hydrogen sulfide has a powerful rotten egg odor and can cause headaches, eye irritation, and fatigue.
Also in March, ACHD assessed three separate administrative fines against U.S. Steel—totaling more than $7 million—for air emission violations occurring at areas of the Clairton plant completely separate from those at issue in NELC’s lawsuit.