PITTSBURGH—When David and Cindy Meckel awoke the morning of July 4, the air in their bedroom felt unusually heavy. An all-too-familiar sulfurous odor filled their home, and it grew stronger as they stepped out onto their back porch, where they saw tall flames atop the flares at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works. The Meckels live on a hillside in Glassport, Pennsylvania, just south of Pittsburgh. Their home is three-quarters of a mile east of Irvin Works—which faces them from across the Monongahela Valley—and two miles north of U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the nation’s largest coke manufacturing facility.
The Meckels are witnesses in NELC’s ongoing Clean Air Act citizen suit against U.S. Steel. Brought on behalf of PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council, the lawsuit arises from the company’s decision to operate Clairton Works without critical pollution control equipment for 104 days after an eminently preventable December 2018 fire knocked the equipment offline. When operable, that equipment strips harmful pollutants from the coke oven gas that is generated during coke production at Clairton before the gas is burned as fuel at Clairton, Irvin, and U.S. Steel’s nearby Edgar Thomson facility. During the 104-day pollution control outage, U.S. Steel continued to operate the three plants using untreated coke oven gas, thus emitting massive amounts of illegal pollution into surrounding communities. As members of Clean Air Council, Cindy and David offered lengthy deposition testimony describing their experiences during this period.
Those experiences—especially the sulfurous smell and the loud roar of the flares across the valley—came rushing back to them on the Fourth of July. The public would soon learn why: At 5:30 that morning, the Clairton plant had suffered a widespread, and still unexplained, power outage. The outage halted operation of Clairton’s pollution control equipment.
For the next 40 hours, U.S. Steel essentially reprised the strategy it had followed during the earlier 104-day outage period: Once again, the communities surrounding U.S. Steel faced increased exposure to harmful pollutants, including hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, as the company burned untreated coke oven gas at all its available flare stacks, including those near the Meckels.
The July 4 outage looms large as NELC attorneys prepare for a trial against U.S. Steel. Presiding Judge W. Scott Hardy has denied the parties’ motions for summary judgment and has tentatively scheduled trial for the spring of 2023. At trial, the plaintiffs will seek the appointment of a neutral third party to audit the operation, maintenance, and design of the Clairton facility.
U.S. Steel has steadfastly maintained that this remedy is too drastic, arguing in court filings that “it is not imminent, let alone likely, that U.S. Steel’s permit violations will reoccur.” NELC attorneys will argue that July 4 proves otherwise.