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Editor's note: The author of this story has a conflict of interest. See the note at the end of the story.
U.S. Steel's Clairton Works in a 2010 photo by Patrick Cain. (Via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)
An air-quality monitor across the river from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works is the only one where pollution levels are out of compliance with federal standards, Allegheny County officials said Thursday.
As a result, the Allegheny County Health Department has fined U.S. Steel $1 million and has given the company 60 days to submit information about how it intends to clean up emissions from the facility.
If the company doesn't improve its performance within a six-month time period, a county health department spokesman said, the county will order two of Clairton Works' coke batteries to be shut down.
Meghan Cox, a spokeswoman for U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, told Tube City Almanac on Friday the company is "reviewing the document at this time" but had no further comment.
Clairton Works produces coke, a fuel used in blast furnaces, as well as a variety of chemical by-products by heating coal to high temperatures in special ovens, grouped into "batteries."
The plant has 10 of those batteries, producing 4.3 million tons of coke annually, according to U.S. Steel's annual report. It is the largest coke plant in the United States.
County officials are especially worried about levels of extremely fine particles of soot, referred to as PM 2.5, being produced during the process, as well as the chemical sulfur dioxide.
PM 2.5 has been linked by medical research to asthma and related lung diseases.
In February, the website Environmental Health News, a publication of the Charlottesville, Va., based Environmental Health Sciences reported that more than 18 percent of children in Clairton have asthma. Nationally, the average is 8 percent.
A June report by EHS writer Kristina Marusic questioned whether Allegheny County's higher-than-average rates of immune system disorders --- including Crohn's and celiac disease, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes --- may also be linked to air pollution from Clairton and other facilities.
After U.S. Steel signed a consent decree with the county in 2016, emissions levels recorded near the Clairton Works showed progress, Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the health department, said in a statement.
But since the second half of 2017, Hacker said, pollution has been getting worse, not better, according to data collected at an air-quality monitor located at South Allegheny High School in Liberty Borough.
The Liberty Borough site “has begun to measure increasing levels of fine particulate matter, thus reversing a long-term trend of improvement,” Hacker said. “The decrease in compliance has to be remedied to protect the health of our residents.”
The county is ordering U.S. Steel to assess all of the batteries that make coke at Clairton Works within 60 days and provide details of current emissions.
In addition, the county is requiring the company to develop a plan to reduce sulfur dioxides, PM 2.5 particles and "visible emissions" --- meaning smoke and steam.
Once U.S. Steel's plan is accepted and approved by the health department, the county wants the company to begin implementing the plan within 30 days.
If the pollution levels don't come into compliance, said Ryan Scarpino, health department spokesman, the county will order "the two worst-performing" coke batteries to be shut down until U.S. Steel complies with the enforcement order.
Conflict of Interest Note: The author of this story has a conflict of interest. He is a U.S. Steel stockholder.
Originally published June 29, 2018.