Allegheny County joins NELC suit against U.S. Steel; another fire reignites safety concerns

Some residents of Clairton, Penn., have installed air quality monitors (like the one pictured above) in their yards in an effort to detect the harmful pollutants emitted by U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, seen in the photo’s background.

PITTSBURGH—On June 18, the Allegh- eny County Health Department joined the citizen suit that National Environmen- tal Law Center (NELC) attorneys filed on behalf of PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council against U.S. Steel in April. Around the same time, a fire knocked out the air pollution controls of U.S. Steel’s Clairton, Pennsylvania, facility for the second time in six months.

NELC attorneys filed suit after the first fire, in December 2018, destroyed portions of Clairton Coke Works’ pollution control system. The company took the pollution controls offline as they were rebuilt, and, from late December through early April, continued to produce coke (a hard, porous material used in the steel-making process) despite having no mechanism to treat the pollutants it generated in the process.

After the second fire occured on June 17, the Allegheny County Health Department issued an emergency order for U.S. Steel to submit a plan to meet emission stan- dards within 20 days, or cease coking operations. The department also made clear that it shares the citizen plaintiffs’ concerns about the extraordinary level of pollutants U.S. Steel emitted from its Clairton-area facilities during the first quarter of 2019, and chose to join our citizen action suit rather than duplicating the groups’ efforts in a suit of its own.

“Yet another fire at this aging facility further underscores the dangers of allowing U.S. Steel to continue to operate what amounts to a doomsday machine that cannot be turned off when pollution controls are knocked offline,” said Ashleigh Deemer, PennEnvironment’s western Pennsylvania director, to the Wall Street Journal.

The June fire was reportedly less extensive than the December fire, but both occurred in the same control room. The repeated events dashed any hope that fires could be prevented under existing conditions at the plant (for information on U.S. Steel’s troubling safety policies, see page 4).

“Joint action by citizen environmental groups and local government should send a clear statement to U.S. Steel: This community will not tolerate illegal air pollution,” said NELC Attorney Maggie Nivison.

“The second fire brings into sharp focus the continuing danger facing this community,” said NELC Senior Attorney Josh Kratka.

Allegheny County residents endure highly polluted air. U.S. Steel emitted extraordinary levels of pollutants for the months that its pollution controls were offline, and residents’ already impaired air quality suffered a significant setback.

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After NELC files notice, Texas takes legal action against Valero Energy

Unauthorized emissions from the September 2017 tank fire at Valero’s Port Arthur oil refinery, as seen in footage from News 4 San Antonio, are among the violations included in NELC’s notice of intent to sue.

PORT ARTHUR, Texas—The state of Texas has decided to try to match NELC’s past successes in holding a major air polluter fully accountable for breaking the law.

On May 22, NELC attorneys informed Valero Energy Corporation that they intended to file suit within 60 days over repeated violations of Clean Air Act emissions limits at Valero’s oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.

NELC’s notice, sent in conjunction with attorneys from Lone Star Legal Aid on behalf of Port Arthur Community Action Network (PA-CAN), Environment Texas, and Sierra Club, alleged more than 600 violations of permit limits that collectively released nearly 1.8 million pounds of unauthorized pollution since May 2014.

Under the Clean Air Act, a 60-day waiting period before filing suit is required after citizens provide formal notice of alleged violations, to allow the state or federal government the opportunity to step up to the plate and enforce the law with their own suit.

On the 58th day after NELC served the Valero notice, the state of Texas did just that—filing a lawsuit that precisely tracks the enforcement roadmap set out in NELC’s notice.

Texas’ suit will preempt citizen enforcement so long as it is “diligently prosecuted.” However, given the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s notoriously poor enforcement record, NELC attorneys and the three citizen groups will be watching very closely.

“We are going to have to watchdog Texas’ suit to make sure the state aggressively enforces the Clean Air Act and holds Valero fully accountable,” explained NELC Senior Attorney Josh Kratka.

According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, around 36,000 people, as well as five schools and more than 20 churches, are within a 3-mile radius of the Valero refinery. Living in such proximity to the massive complex, residents fear they are being repeatedly exposed to harmful chemicals, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, fine particulates, and those defined by the EPA as “hazardous air pollutants.”

“Valero’s past and ongoing violations of its clean air permits have directly affected the quality of life, health, and safety of residents in Port Arthur and its West Side community,” said John Beard, president of PA-CAN.

“A slap on the wrist won’t cut it. We are now calling on the state to uphold our right to breathe clean air. Our lives—and our children’s lives—depend on it.”

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A year after settlement, Pasadena Refining reduces excess emissions and funds clean vehicle program

The future of electric municipal vehicles in the Houston area looks promising with recent developments in cutting-edge research.

HOUSTON—In the first year following settlement of a lawsuit filed by NELC attorneys on behalf of Environment Texas and Sierra Club, Pasadena Refining System Inc. (PRSI) has dramatically reduced its unauthorized emissions of harmful air pollutants and paid more than $3 million to start a vehicle emission-reduction fund. But it still has work to do.

In the first annual compliance report required by the NELC consent decree, PRSI detailed emission violations that totaled 8,152 pounds of unauthorized air pollutants in the period from April 2018 to March 2019.

This is a major improvement compared to the annual average of nearly 100,000 pounds of unauthorized emissions in the five years preceding the lawsuit, including a high of 164,742 pounds in 2012. Nonetheless, as required by the consent decree, PRSI must now pay stipulated penalties for this past year’s emission limit violations and must continue to pay penalties for excess emissions until it complies with its emission limits for two consecutive years.

As part of the penalty payment required by the settlement, PRSI also paid $3,175,000 to the Houston-Galveston Area Council for the purpose of establishing a fund to reduce emissions from motor vehicles.

This project aims to improve air quality in nearby Pasadena, Galena Park, and southeastern Harris County by helping municipalities both to replace polluting vehicle fleets with zero- or ultra-low- emission vehicle models, and to establish local infrastructure, such as charging stations, in support of electric vehicles. The transition to fossil fuel-free vehicles will help reduce air pollutants, such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds, that have compromised the health of local residents for years.

The settlement also imposes other specific measures to address the significant compliance issues at the Pasadena Refinery. PRSI is now taking steps to maximize the utilization of pollution control equipment, reduce flaring events, respond quickly to community complaints, prepare for hurricane threats, install emission event tracking systems, and implement preventative maintenance plans.

“We brought this lawsuit to address the repeated mechanical breakdowns and operational flaws that plagued the Pasadena Refinery for years and caused illegal releases of pollution into the surrounding neighborhoods,” said NELC Senior Attorney Josh Kratka.

“The facility’s dramatic reductions in emissions over the past year are encouraging, but also show that such violations never should have happened in the first place.”

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