A double whammy: air pollution and COVID-19 in Pennsylvania’s Mon Valley
PITTSBURGH—NELC continues to press ahead with PennEnvironment and Clean Air Council’s lawsuit against U.S. Steel, even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Fortunately, Pennsylvania federal courts have adapted to the pandemic by holding remote proceedings, and are permitting the taking of depositions using remote video technology.
NELC’s suit, filed in April 2019, alleges that U.S. Steel emitted extraordinarily high levels of air pollutants while pollution controls at its Clairton, Pennsylvania, coke plant were offline for more than three months. NELC’s attorneys are moving forward with discovery, gather- ing evidence to prepare for trial, and are obtaining detailed reports from expert witnesses whom they will call to testify at trial. A focus of this testimony will be U.S. Steel’s systemic failure to do the basic inspection and maintenance of it facilities that could prevent such catastrophic air pollution incidents from occurring.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of this lawsuit. The respiratory virus sweeping the nation has a particularly devastating effect on populations already suffering from high levels of air pollution. In May, The New York Times reported that “Har- vard specialists found that coronavirus patients in areas with historically heavy air pollution are more likely to die than patients elsewhere.”
And COVID-19 has hit hard in Allegheny County, where U.S. Steel’s coke plant and other production facilities are located. The Allegheny County Health Department (a co-plaintiff in the NELC lawsuit) is striving to be the community’s bulwark against the virus and air pollution. But the Health Department has its work cut out for it.
In July, Allegheny County was facing between 100 and 200 new reported cases of COVID-19 each day. Those cases came in a county that the American Lung Association rates as having the second-worst air quality in Pennsylvania and as being among the worst in the nation for year- round air particle pollution.
As in other parts of the country, Allegheny County is urging residents to stay home if they are sick. Unlike in most of the rest of the country, however, shelter- in-place orders are familiar to Allegheny County residents. For years, the communities around U.S. Steel’s plants have dealt with periodic recommendations to stay at home, only then the threat was not a virus—it was the very air itself.