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U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant in a 2010 photo by Patrick Cain. (Via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)
An accident three weeks ago that damaged two pieces of equipment at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant has the potential to create unhealthy air conditions in the Mon Valley, Allegheny County officials said Wednesday.
The county Health Department is warning residents --- especially those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions --- to limit their outdoor activities until further notice.
The Clairton Plant produces coke, a fuel used in the steelmaking process, by baking coal at extremely high temperatures to remove impurities.
Jim Kelly, deputy director for environmental health at the Health Department, said a fire on Dec. 24 damaged two "gas dispatcher" stations, which help to remove pollutants.
In a prepared statement, Kelly said health department officials have been monitoring the plant and working with U.S. Steel officials since the accident on Christmas Eve.
Since the accident, he said, the Clairton Plant has been using natural gas instead of coke oven gas to fire its 10 batteries, and has extended the time of the coking process.
Nevertheless, emissions from the plant have exceeded federal standards for emissions of sulfur dioxide on four occasions, he said.
“While their strategies appeared to be addressing their emissions, the data from yesterday morning showed two exceedances of the federal hourly standards,” Kelly said. “We had previously required additional controls be implemented to address each new exceedance.
“Following yesterday’s exceedances, the plant implemented additional actions to address the issue,” he said. “We will continue monitoring the situation and consider requiring additional action, including enforcement actions, if necessary.”
Sulfur dioxide, an invisible gas which has a "rotten egg" aroma, can cause difficulty breathing, especially for children, older adults and people with pre-existing heart or lung conditions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Sensitive populations include those with asthma, bronchitis or emphysema.
In addition to Clairton, communities affected by the warning include Braddock, Dravosburg, Duquesne, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Borough, Elizabeth Twp., Forward Twp., Glassport, Jefferson Hills, Liberty, Lincoln, McKeesport, North Braddock, North Versailles, Pleasant Hills, Port Vue, Versailles, Wall, West Elizabeth and West Mifflin.
Additional updates related to air quality data will be provided on the health department's Facebook page as they are available, a spokesman said. All air quality data, including hourly reports, can be found online at the health department's website.
In 2018, the health department levied a $1 million fine against U.S. Steel for what county officials alleged were rising levels of pollution from the facility, and told the company that the plant must be upgraded to prevent the problems from happening again.
The company has appealed the fine, saying the health department overstepped its authority, and that its fact-finding process was flawed.
At hearings in December, U.S. Steel attorneys said the changes being requested by the health department could cost the company more than $400 million and result in workers losing their jobs.
An administrative law judge has not yet ruled on U.S. Steel's appeal.
Conflict of Interest Note: The author of this story has a conflict of interest. He is a U.S. Steel stockholder.
Originally published January 09, 2019.