(Roy Luck photo via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0.)
Correction appended, Jan. 17:
Three elected state officials are demanding more accountability from U.S. Steel and the Allegheny County Health Department in the wake of the announcement that sulfur dioxide emissions from the Clairton Plant have exceeded safe levels six times since Dec. 24.
State Sens. Jim Brewster and Jay Costa and state Rep. Austin Davis are calling on the state House and Senate Democratic Policy Committees to hold a joint hearing in the Mon-Yough area, which has been under an "air quality alert" since Jan. 8.
Last week, local residents criticized the health department for waiting 16 days before issuing the alert, which warned children, the elderly and people with heart and lung conditions to avoid strenuous outdoor activities until further notice.
"The public needs to know sooner and get better information on how to react," Brewster, Costa and Davis said in a joint release Wednesday.
“We know that we need to do a better job of communicating information to impacted residents," said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the health department, in a prepared statement.
She said the department has been in touch with "community advocates, elected officials and environmental groups" and will be providing daily updates at 3 p.m. until the alert is lifted.
The Clairton Plant produces coke, a fuel used in the steelmaking process, from super-heating coal to remove impurities. A variety of chemicals also are produced from the byproducts of the coking process.
Health Department officials have said that a fire at Clairton Plant on Dec. 24 damaged two pieces of emissions equipment known as "gas dispatcher" stations.
On Wednesday, Hacker said that damage to the building housing the equipment was "severe" and the cause of the fire has not yet been determined.
U.S. Steel using an outside company to conduct an investigation into the cause of the blaze, Hacker said, but doesn't know yet when repairs will be completed.
Until the repairs are complete, she said, U.S. Steel is using a number of strategies to minimize the accidental release of excess sulfur dioxide from the plant, including extended coking times, the use of natural gas to offset the use of coke oven gas, and "flaring," or burning off excess gas and pollutants.
"The Health Department receives hourly updates on readings from the monitors throughout the county and is closely watching the ones impacted by the Clairton Coke Works," Hacker said.
While there have been no additional excess levels of sulfur dioxide measured since the warning was issued, she said, "plant repairs are ongoing, and there is still a risk for future exceedances."
Sulfur dioxide has a strong odor, like a match being struck. In high concentrations, it can irritate the lungs.
More than 1,100 workers are employed at Clairton Plant, which is the largest coke works in the United States and the last one operating in Allegheny County. (ArcelorMittal operates a coke plant in Monessen, Westmoreland County, about 12 miles south of Clairton.)*
The Clairton Plant has long been identified as one of the largest producers of air pollutants in the region.
Environmentalists and some doctors have blamed the Clairton Plant for what they have called an "epidemic" of asthma and other lung diseases in the area around Clairton.
Brewster, Costa and Davis said they want to "get to the bottom" of the "legal confusion causing delays in important public health notifications."
They asked for "complete transparency about daily emissions from the Clairton Plant (and) the planned resolution for repairing the plant from the fire, including specific timelines."
The three Mon Valley lawmakers also are calling on the health department and U.S. Steel to provide specifics on "how the longer-term emissions problems" from the Clairton Plant are going to be addressed.
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. The company appealed the fine, saying the health department overstepped its authority, and that its fact-finding process was flawed.
An administrative law judge has not yet ruled on U.S. Steel's appeal.
Correction: This story originally said that Clairton Plant was the last coke plant in Western Pennsylvania. It is not; ArcelorMittal has a coke plant in Monessen. It has been the last coke plant in Allegheny County since the closure of Shenango Inc.'s coke plant in Neville Twp. Thank you to reader who reminded us.
Conflict of Interest Note: The author of this story is a U.S. Steel shareholder.
Jason Togyer is the editor of Tube City Almanac and the volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published January 16, 2019.