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Legislators Plan Public Hearing on Clairton Works Fire, Aftermath

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
January 28, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

U.S. Steel: Repairs to pollution equipment expected to take four months

(U.S. Steel photo)

Four state legislators will hold a town-hall style public hearing in Clairton to discuss a Dec. 24 fire at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant, and the aftermath.

State Sen. Jim Brewster said that joint Senate-House Democratic Policy Committee hearing will begin at 12 noon Feb. 7 at the Clairton Municipal Building, 551 Ravensburg Blvd.

Also scheduled to attend, along with officials from the Allegheny County Health Department, are state Sen. Jay Costa and state Reps. Austin Davis and Bill Kortz.

Meanwhile, U.S. Steel said that the pollution control equipment damaged in the fire could be out of service for up to four months, but that the company is working "around the clock to make the necessary repairs."

The company has set up a special website at www.clairton.uss.com to provide updates directly to the public.

The fire in the early morning hours of Dec. 24 damaged part of the emissions control system at the Clairton Plant, which super-heats coal to cook out the impurities and turn it into coke, a fuel used by blast furnaces.

The coking process releases a variety of chemicals, some of which are captured and reused to make chemicals and pharmaceuticals, as well as coke-oven gas, a fuel used by other U.S. Steel facilities.

U.S. Steel representatives said the fire destroyed sections of two control rooms, causing significant damage to the roof of a building and preventing some of the equipment --- which removes sulfur from coke-oven gas --- from being operated. No injuries were reported.

A mechanical failure in a compressor caused the fire, U.S. Steel said.

Although the county health department was notified of the fire immediately, most of the public didn't learn the extent of the problem until Jan. 9.

That's when the health department issued a warning that emissions of sulfur dioxide from the plant had exceeded acceptable levels on six occasions. The warning called on Mon Valley residents --- especially those with heart or lung conditions --- to limit their outdoor activities until further notice.

The health department said Friday there have been no additional exceedances since Jan. 8.

Residents met Wednesday in Clairton to question why it took the health department more than two weeks to issue a warning.

Some called for the Clairton Plant to be shut down --- in so-called "hot idle" --- until the repairs are complete and the pollution equipment is working properly again.

Sulfur dioxide has a strong odor, like rotten eggs or a match being struck, and can irritate the eyes and lungs, causing breathing problems, especially for people with asthma or emphysema.

Residents at last week's meeting said the odor from the Clairton Plant has, at times, been so bad they thought their own houses were on fire, according to a story in Thursday's Valley Mirror.

During a conference call with the health department on Friday, Brewster, Costa, Davis and Kortz questioned the department's community notification procedures and air quality monitoring, and asked how the department could improve its communications and emergency response.

County officials pledged that these issues would be covered at the Feb. 7 hearing, Brewster said.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the health department, said Friday that the county is monitoring emergency room data to see if visits and admissions --- particularly for asthma and related conditions --- have increased since the accident Dec. 24.

The department has "not seen an uptick in those visits," she said.

In a letter sent to the health department and released by U.S. Steel to the media, the company said that until the pollution equipment is repaired, it is taking a number of steps to reduce emissions.

Those steps include extending the amount of time that coal is "coked" and using an increased amount of natural gas, rather than coke-oven gas, at the Irvin Plant in West Mifflin.

The excess coke gas is being burned off, or "flared," at the Irvin Plant, which has resulted in the night skies over Glassport and Dravosburg being brightly lit on recent evenings.

"U.S. Steel is employing significant resources around the clock to investigate the incident," said Michael S. Rhoads, manager of the Clairton Plant, in a letter to the health department dated Friday.

"We remain committed to employing actions only when such actions can be done in a manner that is safe for our employees, contractors and the public, and when potential impacts to the environment can be minimized," Rhoads wrote.

A company spokesperson said the coke-oven gas cleaning unit is expected to be at 70 percent capacity by May 15, with the remainder of the equipment returning to service later.

The work includes repairs to piping, replacing damaged compressors, testing motors and making structural repairs to the fire-damaged building, the company said.

"Many of these repairs are intricate and require additional specially fabricated parts that have long lead times to make," the company said in a prepared statement.

However, there are no plans to "idle" or close the coke ovens at Clairton, even temporarily, U.S. Steel said.

"Hot idling is a deliberate and lengthy process," the company said in a prepared statement.

In the long-term, U.S. Steel said, "a hot idle at Clairton" would permanently damage some of the coke ovens, lead to more pollution problems at other coke ovens, and likely result in layoffs at other U.S. Steel facilities, including Irvin Plant and Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock.

In the meantime, the health department and U.S. Steel are placing additional sulfur dioxide monitors in the Mon Valley, Hacker said, including one at the Clairton Education Center and another near Irvin Plant.

U.S. Steel is paying for those monitors, Hacker said, and data will be publicly available on the health department's website.

The department also continues to post updates at 3 p.m. daily about air quality and will share that information on Facebook as well, she said.

The county is prepared to levy fines against U.S. Steel for violating air-pollution regulations and the conditions of its operating permit, Hacker said.

"We continue to review all possible enforcement options, and should any repair progress be impeded, we are prepared to issue orders to require additional mitigation efforts," she said.

Hacker said the county also is asking the state Department of Environmental Protection and state legislators, including the Mon Valley delegation, for additional "tools and resources" to monitor air quality, and to enforce the rules.

"We are hopeful that those conversations will result in legislation being introduced in the near future," she said.

In addition, anyone who has experienced health issues since the Dec. 24 fire is being asked to call the health department at (412) 687-2243, or submit information through the department's online contact form, Hacker said.

Jason Togyer is volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. and editor of Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published January 28, 2019.

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